Having reliable cornerbacks in many ways is a gift, that few teams in today's NFL possess.
For several seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers have invested much time and resources in hopes of finding effective and productive cornerbacks, as they have had some of the weakest secondary units in recent memory.
This past March, the Steelers signed veteran cornerback Steven Nelson, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs. Though they have only played two games, Nelson has emerged as one of the few bright spots on a squad that overall, has struggled mightily this season.
Coming into Sunday's contest against the Seattle Seahawks, Nelson was faced with a difficult task; locking down rookie receiver D.K. Metcalf. At 6'3, 225 lbs, Metcalf is an imposing presence, not to mention, a player that is gifted in a multitude of ways. Considering Nelson's smaller frame at 5'10, the Seahawks game plan was to exploit what they perceived was a physical mismatch. What they got instead was a cornerback that was fully prepared to rise to the occasion.
In this sequence, Nelson is seen playing outside in press against Metcalf. If one observes the angle which Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is positioned, it is clear that the ball is Metcalf's way. From the snap, Metcalf delays then releases off the line. Nelson is successfully able to flip his hips and shadow him. What is impressive is how Nelson is able to crowd his space enough to give Wilson a small window in which his can get the ball to Metcalf. As a result of the work Nelson does in this case, he forces the incompletion.
Textbook Pass Deflection
As in the previous sequence, Nelson is seen here in press coverage, with the Seahawks in a 11 personnel package. The way this plays out is similar to what we saw in the previous clip. Metcalf releases and runs a modified 'Go' route along the sideline. When ball in the air, Metcalf comes back to it. Note the manner in which Metcalf used his size to outmuscle Nelson to win in this one-on-one situation. Instead, Nelson does not get physically dominated and is able to time this pass deflection perfectly, and makes an important play on third down.
Second Pass Deflection
As has been the common theme in each of the clips, Nelson is seen again in press coverage against Metcalf. Much of everything that occurs is the same except for two aspects; the motioning receiver and the speed of Wilson's release. After their previous failed attempt, the idea in the case was to release the ball quickly, putting Nelson in a difficult position to make a play. What is noticeable about Nelson, is his ability to transition smoothly from backpedal, and position himself in the right angle to make a play. In the process of making this pass deflection, he forced an offensive interference call on Metcalf.
The Seahawks had planned to showcase their prized rookie at Nelson's expense; what they got was a cornerback that was ready to ruin those plans. Despite the final outcome of the game, one can take some solace in knowing that the Steelers may have finally found a cornerback that can make plays in difficult situations. For a defense in need of an identity, Nelson's presence the starting point needed to find out who they are, and what can they be.