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Steelers Vertex: Examining the value of Steven Nelson

How should Steelers’ fans evaluate Nelson’s season, and what should we expect moving forward?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Since one of the most pressing issues facing the Steelers this offseason is how to handle the contracts of a number of players with large salary cap hits, we’re going to take this opportunity to break down the player statistics, salary cap implications, and play on the field to help determine what would be in the Steelers’ best interest. This has been the focus on our Steelers Vertex series over the next several weeks.

Starting off with the obvious choice of Ben Roethlisberger followed by Maurkice Pouncey, Joe Haden, David DeCastro, and Stephon Tuitt we left it up to YOU, the readers, to determine which player we will look at next. Next up is Steven Nelson as the top choice in the voter poll. For now, the choices will be players under contract for the 2021 season but the Steelers will need to consider if they are going to retain, extend, or release.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

As stated above, the topic at hand this week is looking at Steven Nelson and making a case for what the Steelers should do in regards to his contract in 2021. With only one year left on his current contract, should the Steelers look to retain, extend, or release Nelson for this season?

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

In two seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Steven Nelson has helped to solidify a Steelers secondary which had been a liability in previous seasons. Struggling recently to hit at the cornerback position in the draft, the Steelers paid the most amount for a free agent in franchise history when they signed a Nelson to a three-year, $25.5 million contract in 2019.

In his first season in Pittsburgh, Nelson put up numbers which rivaled NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore. The biggest difference with Nelson was he was only able to come up with one interception on the season. Not surrendering any touchdowns according to Pro Football Reference, Nelson only gave up 491 yards on 37 completions on 74 targets.

The 2020 season was not nearly as productive as 2019 for Nelson from a statistical standpoint. Although Nelson did double his interception output to two this past season, Nelson surrendered seven touchdowns and 732 yards on 57 completions on 98 targets. While PFR has the touchdowns at seven, it’s a highly suspicious number as it is a statistic open to interpretation and neither I or Nelson believe it to be this high.

As for his salary, Nelson’s contract was structured to where he received $9 million his first season in the form of $1.5 million in base salary and a $7.5 million signing bonus. Because the Steelers converted the majority of Nelson‘s $8.25 million of his 2020 base salary to a signing bonus this past season, his salary cap number has ballooned to $14.42 million in 2021. With a base salary of $8.25 million yet again for 2021, the Steelers will likely make a move with Nelson to reduce this number for the season. With 56.5% of Nelson’s contract counting this season on the salary cap, the Steelers will likely either release or extend Nelson before the start of the 2021 season.

But which will they do? Perhaps the film can help make a better prediction.

The Film Line:

Steven Nelson’s advanced stats say he didn’t have as good of a season in 2020 as he did in 2019, but the film shows a slightly different scheme and focus for Steven Nelson in 2020 that worked well for the Steelers, even if it didn’t work well for his personal stats.

Week 5, 1st quarter, 8:25. Steven Nelson is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

Early in the season, the Steelers ran a lot of cover-1, and that left Steven Nelson on his own a lot. On this play, Nelson is playing with outside leverage, funneling his receiver to the middle where Minkah Fitzpatrick is in zone. On this play Fitzpatrick is drawn in by the shorter route and leaves Nelson with no help and the wrong leverage to play this route by himself.

Week 5, 2nd quarter, 11:03. Steven Nelson is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

On this play Steven Nelson is the player responsible for being the deepest defender on his side, allowing other players to attack underneath routes. The Eagles exploit that with a good block on Terrell Edmunds and Nelson can’t stop the receiver from getting the first down.

Week 10, 3rd quarter, 4:13. Steven Nelson is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

Steven Nelson is a really good deep defender, you can see that here with Nelson jumping A.J. Green’s route from a deep cover-3 assignment. He didn’t come up with an interception on this play, and only had two on the season, but the threat was enough to dissuade teams from attacking him in zone.

Week 14 2nd quarter, 1:55. Steven Nelson is guarding Stephon Diggs.

Here Nelson is in man coverage, he had help to the middle of the field, and like the first play, starts with outside leverage on the receiver. The Bills try to attack him outside anyway, and even with Stephon Diggs running a great route, Nelson is able to stay with him and make sure Diggs couldn’t complete the catch.

In 2019 Nelson was tasked with deep coverage the vast majority of the time, and it resulted in the Steelers facing the fifth fewest deep passes to the left side of the field in the NFL and the tenth best yards per attempt on those passes. It also led to the Steelers ranking 19th in yards per target on short passes to the left.

Week 7, 2nd quarter, 0:32. Steven Nelson is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen, Minkah Fitzpatrick is the deep safety to that side.

In 2020 the Steelers put more responsibility for short routes on Nelson, and put the deep coverage responsibility on the safeties. Against A.J. Brown on this play Nelson does a great job taking away anything short or to the inside, and Minkah Fitzpatrick has the deep throw covered.

Week 15, 1st quarter, 9:35. Steven Nelson is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Nelson has help behind him, and is free to attack this route, breaking up the pass to bring up a fourth down.

You can see how good his technique was on this route. He meets Tee Higgins right after his cut, gets his right arm into Higgins side, pinning the receiver’s arm and gets a hand on the ball to knock it away.

Using Nelson to attack underneath routes, mixing up schemes much more than in 2019 worked well for the Steelers, because while the Steelers faced more deep passes to that side in 2020 (from 5th to 9th fewest) they still finished 10th in yards per attempt on deep passes to the left, and they improved from 19th to 3rd in yards per attempt on short passes to the left.

Overall, the Steelers defense on passes to the left side of the field improved from 10th in yards per attempt in 2019 to 2nd in yards per attempt in 2020. So while Nelson’s advanced stats are worse than they were in 2019, the team improved significantly on his side of the field, and a significant part of that was Nelson’s work on shorter routes that left him exposed to getting beat deep more often.

The Point:

Based on these two lines of thought, it would be foolish for the Steelers to move on from Steven Nelson in their secondary. While the numbers from 2020 don’t look as impressive as 2019, the responsibilities Nelson was tasked with make him a big asset to their secondary. Even with a substantial salary cap it for this year, being able to replace what Nelson does would be quite expensive. Therefore, the Steelers best course of action would be to lock Nelson into an even longer deal in order to drop down his 2021 salary cap it and keep him part of their defense for the next several seasons.

Which player would you like to see broken down for next weeks Steelers Vertex? Make sure you vote in the poll below.


Which player under contract for the 2021 season would you like to see broken down for next weeks Steelers Vertex?

This poll is closed

  • 56%
    Vince Williams
    (203 votes)
  • 43%
    Eric Ebron
    (157 votes)
360 votes total Vote Now

Past Vertex breakdowns: