Kevin Gorman: CB Steven Nelson navigates into Steelers’ starting lineup
Steven Nelson grew up in Georgia, played college football in Oregon, started his NFL career in Kansas City and has an offseason home in Arizona.
So it should come as no surprise that he hates to be stagnant. In fact, when he’s finished playing football, Nelson wants to travel the world. But he’s never done as much mindless wandering as his first week exploring the streets of Pittsburgh.
“The biggest thing is learning my way around the city, with the bridges and tunnels. There’s a lot of crooked roads and stuff like that,” Nelson said Thursday at training camp at Saint Vincent. “When I first got here, that first week I tried to use the GPS a lot. It wasn’t even picking up stuff. I spent a lot of money on gas, just pointless driving around for no reason.”
Nelson wasted no time navigating his way into the Steelers’ starting lineup at cornerback. He stepped into that role on the first day of practice and hasn’t missed a beat since, looking like a natural complement to play corner opposite Joe Haden.
The Steelers’ dissatisfaction with their outside corner play last season was evident when they benched former first-rounder Artie Burns in favor of journeyman Coty Sensabaugh then declined to re-sign Sensabaugh when his contract expired. They signed the 5-foot-11, 194-pound Nelson to a three-year, $25.5 million contract, giving the defense instant credibility in coverage, a physical open-field tackler and, most importantly, a boost to its turnover ratio.
“I just like his overall, general approach to the work,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He’s a consistently ‘up’ performer. He’s a detail guy. You see why he’s opportunistic. I’m looking forward to him being opportunistic for us.”
Steelers secondary coach Teryl Austin credited Nelson for bringing leadership and a professional approach to a young position room where, outside of Haden, the majority of players have four years or fewer of NFL experience.
“He’s not an up-and-down guy, so you’re going to get the same work effort and the same work habits every day,” Austin said. “He’s done good job with our press coverage, he’s been a solid tackler in our live drills and he really competes well. He’s a good, solid pro, and I’m glad he’s on our team.”
The Steelers have placed an emphasis on creating more turnovers, especially interceptions, so adding a ball hawk became a top priority. Nelson believes forcing turnovers can become contagious, and the Steelers are showing signs during training camp of being more opportunistic than ever.
“You can’t get ’em just whenever you say or blink. It’s one of those things where when you get your opportunity, you’ve got to make it,” Nelson said. “That’s one of the great things about playing in this league: Once you get a turnover, you can change the game. You want to be a game-changer. If you want to be the best, you have to be a game-changer.”
The Steelers want Nelson to be a game-changer, especially if he can continue to pick off passes like last season. Nelson had four interceptions for the Chiefs, half as many as the Steelers had as a team and twice as many as Haden. But Nelson also has shown strong coverage skills. He had 15 passes defensed for the Chiefs last season and has blanketed receivers in practice at camp.
What has impressed his teammates so far, however, is Nelson’s reactionary skills and willingness to tackle. He had a career-high 68 stops, including 58 solo, and two tackles for loss last season.
“He’s quick off breaks on receivers, and he’s a physical guy,” Steelers slot cornerback Mike Hilton said. “He sticks his nose in and shows he’s willing to tackle.”
Nelson believes that his style makes him a perfect fit for a Steelers defense that wants to rush the passer and contain the outside run. And he was drawn to Pittsburgh as much for its tradition on defense as he was by the lucrative contract.
“If you’re a defensive player, you want to play for an organization like this with a history of having top-tier defenses,” Nelson said. “Now that I’m a part of it, it’s exciting. The only thing different is the color on the jersey and the guys I’m playing with. It’s been a pretty smooth transition for me.”
So far, it’s smoother than navigating the city’s streets. Now, the Steelers are counting on Nelson to pick off some passes so they can see how he handles oncoming traffic.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .