PITTSBURGH — Joe Haden could have taken Steve Nelson's arrival personally, a threat of sorts when the Pittsburgh Steelers splurged in free agency in March 2019 to bring in Nelson from Kansas City.
The Steelers were looking to shore up a leaky secondary that underachieved during a late-season collapse the previous fall. So they spent $25 million on a three-year deal to lure Nelson away from the Chiefs.
In a position often defined by egos — an important defence mechanism when the rules are basically designed to limit how to do your job — Haden could have braced himself for a clash to determine who was the alpha.
It never happened. Nelson's curiosity and Haden's inherent professionalism wouldn't allow it. Now they're the linchpin of a position group that's quickly morphed from a liability to a strength. The surprise addition of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick last September helped, but the steadiness and consistency of Haden and Nelson gave the younger players around them a chance to learn, and to flourish.
Pittsburgh dropped from 10th to third against the pass in 2019. The quarterback rating by opponents sank 15 points, from 95.1 to 79.7. Their interception total spiked from eight to 28, including five from Haden and one from Nelson. Their rapport was almost instant, thanks in part to Nelson's thirst for the knowledge Haden's accumulated during his now 10-year career.
“We have been able to chop it up with ball,” Haden said. “There are not too many dudes that I have met that have been like Steve that have been this talented and open for coaching from another player or just information from another player. He is already a great corner.”
At least to those who sit next to him in the locker room. Not so much outside it. While Haden reached his third Pro Bowl last winter, Nelson is still waiting for his first invitation despite some metrics that hint at his elite status. He actually played more snaps and allowed fewer completions for fewer yards than New England star Stephon Gilmore, the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Entering his sixth season, Nelson admits being overlooked is kind of getting old.
“This year, one of my goals is just to be recognized as one of the better corners in the league and just my role on this defence , being a professional, a veteran guy that’s going to come to work and do my job so we can all reach that same goal,” he said.
Secondary coach Teryl Austin is trying to walk a fine line with Nelson. Austin knows what he has on his hands. Yet he also knows that Nelson thrives on being considered an underdog, even if it's not exactly the case.
“He likes to be underrated because that gives him that little chip he needs,” Austin said.
A chip that Haden never really had to deal with, the gift that comes with being taken with the seventh overall pick in the draft as Haden was in 2010.
Yet after being one of the top defenders on a lot of bad teams in Cleveland, his career received a massive jolt since joining the Steelers on the eve of the 2017 season. Last year he played all 16 games for the first time since he was a rookie.
All those snaps and all that knowledge between the two is paying dividends that filters through a secondary that includes 23-year-old safeties Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds.
“When you have an unselfish group of veterans, they are really going to pull the young guys along because they know in the long run, they are only going to be as good as all of the guys in the room,” Austin said.
And all the guys in the room believe they can be very, very good. Perhaps just as importantly, the leaders play with the kind of maturity necessary at one of the most demanding positions on the field. Austin points to Nelson's consistency last season as proof.
“He plays and his level of play does not fluctuate very much week to week,” Austin said. “When I say that, that’s in a good way because his play, he’s got a high level of play, which you feel confident and comfortable with what’s going on.”
It's a level of comfort that Haden thinks will allow the NFL's fifth-ranked overall defence that led the league in sacks and turnovers a year ago to become even more aggressive.
“I think we can play a little more zero coverage, more blitzes and we know our pass rush is going to get there. We believe in our secondary being able to cover.”
NOTES: Rookie OL Kevin Dotson exited practice with a left knee injury and TE Dax Raymond was shaken up during an edge-rushing drill on Tuesday. ... LT Alejandro Villanueva, RG David DeCastro and TE Eric Ebron were given the day off from practice.
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Will Graves, The Associated Press