Steven Nelson quietly does his job.
It's a trait I noticed from Nelson the second he showed up in Pittsburgh. He'd show up to practice, dress, put in work, put in extra work, speak with the media, then bounce. Rinse and repeat. All business.
And with players like T.J. Watt emerging as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Bud Dupree posting his best season to-date, Minkah Fitzpatrick capturing the hearts of Steeler Nation with splash plays aplenty, and No. 10 overall pick Devin Bush immediately proving his worth, No. 22 is easy to miss on game day.
He's been targeted just 45 times in 12 games with these Steelers, allowing 23 catches total, per Pro Football Focus. Those metrics rank tied for 56th and tied for 83rd, respectively, in the league. Last season with the Chiefs, Nelson was the most-targeted corner in the NFL, seeing 113 passes come his way. On those, he allowed 60 receptions, tied for seventh among all qualified cornerbacks.
"It's amazing. I've never been on a defense like this," Nelson was telling me at his locker after the Steelers defeated the Browns, 20-13, at Heinz Field. "I was in Kansas City, and it was frustrating from top to bottom. So I'm just blessed, and I couldn't ask for me and to be on (another) defense, because we all communicate. Not only that, we're all friends off the field as well. It's just like a brotherhood, man, and I hope I'm here for a long time with these guys."
That "brotherhood" is something Nelson has cited from Day 1 with his new team. Throughout OTAs and training camp, Nelson talked about the Steelers' chemistry, and he began forming bonds with his teammates, learning the intricacies of the playbook from veteran Joe Haden and company. Now, as Nelson is putting in the work en route to six wins in their last seven games, he's quick to shine the spotlight on everyone involved in the secondary.
But he can't ignore the production of Watt and Dupree, who have combined for 21 sacks thus far. That makes his life on the back end easier, just as his tight coverage can potentially give them an extra second to get to the quarterback.
"They're doing their thing, man," Nelson was saying of the Steelers' edge duo. "They gave it 110 percent every snap, and I really appreciate that, us guys in the back end. Rushing/coverage — it goes hand in hand. We make their job better by giving them extra seconds and they make our job better."
On this particular Sunday at Heinz Field, however, Nelson broke out of his normally reserved shell for just a moment. There was no holding back when I brought up Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, Jr., the Browns' receiving duo that's received attention aplenty throughout the offseason and regular season.
Does facing a tandem like that get Nelson extra fired-up to go on game day? Well, it gets him fired up. But not quite as I thought when asking the question:
"Definitely not," Nelson offered. "They're just like any other receivers. We're not too much worried about it. It's just hype. I don't know where their hype comes from."
There it is. The fire Nelson possesses surfaces from time to time, and when it comes to disrespecting his craft or the work he and his teammates put in? He can get on a roll.
"I saw some, like, bulletin stuff last week or whenever we played them," Nelson continued. "They were saying they should've put up 40 on us or something like that. I don't know where that came from. We got nine three-and-outs as a defense. Besides the deep play he [Beckham, Jr.] had early in the game — that was just a busted coverage, obviously — he had zero catches after that. It's just hype. All this [stuff] is hype. We went out there and handled business as a defense and came out with the win."
In the rematch, Landry caught six passes for 76 yards, while Beckham, Jr. caught just three for 29. Neither man found the end zone. And neither man did much of anything when matched against Nelson.
Stellar as his performance has been thus far in 2019, there's one area of Nelson's game that's taken a hit from last year. With the Chiefs, Nelson snagged four interceptions. This season, he has none. And he only has five passes defended total.
But this is exactly where stats are misleading. Quarterbacks aren't going his way, and the Steelers' defense as a whole is causing havoc at all levels. Distilling Nelson's performance down to those two stats doesn't remotely tell the whole story of his game — and it's something Nelson recognized when I joked that his elusive first pick as a Steeler has to be coming, right?
"I'm not worried about it [any] more, man," Nelson said with a smile. "It's just like nobody wants me to get it, so it is what it is. I'd rather my teammates get it anyway."
There's that chemistry and that brotherhood again. It's no joke to Nelson, so I probed a little further on just how much that means to him to feel motivated, not just on a personal level but by his teammates surrounding him.
"We all have that, 'I got your back, you got my back' type of feel," Nelson said. "Whereas I've been in another locker room where it's not like that and guys are selfish. They'll leave you out to dry. It's not like that here. I'm very blessed to be here with these guys."
Following Nelson on Twitter and interacting with him on a weekly basis, you quickly realize none of Nelson's progression is a coincidence. He's focused at all times, going as far as incorporating veganism into his diet periodically. He told me he researched the benefits of a vegan diet on his own and feels the lack of dairy can help with inflammation throughout the season. Nelson says he's not fully vegan, but he's aware of things down to that level that can help him take the next step.
"It's very important, and I've always been that way," Nelson said of the work he does beyond the field. "I'm a professional about everything, just trying to get better, take care of my body and watch as much film as possible, just try to live right so I can help my team as best I can."
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