It was a long time coming but the Pittsburgh Steelers finally have a dynamic duo at cornerback.
The first half of the duo arrived on the scene in August 2017, when the Steelers inked Joe Haden mere days after he was released by the Cleveland Browns. Haden has been a steady performer for the Steelers ever since, which explains why the team didn’t hesitate to sign him to a contract extension last September, one that keeps him in Pittsburgh through the 2021 season.
But Haden didn’t reach his potential with the Steelers until last season, when Steven Nelson arrived—also via free agency—to play opposite him. In fact, Haden had one of the best seasons of his career—perhaps his best since his rookie year in Cleveland—accounting for 50 solo tackles, 17 passes defensed and five interceptions.
Steven Nelson: The Steelers’ Most Underrated Player
And at the moment, Nelson looks like an even more inspired signing, arriving by way of Kansas City for $25.5 million over three years in March 2019, making him the most expensive unrestricted free agent acquisition in team history.
Nelson’s play in 2019 was largely overlooked by the national media—thanks in part to the fact that he only produced one interception—but it did not go unnoticed by football insiders. Pro Football Focus (PFF), recently named Nelson the team’s most underrated player, concluding that “Nelson was one of the league’s best cornerbacks last season,” ranking him sixth in the NFL, while reminding us that he allowed just 33 receptions on over 500 coverage snaps.
For his part, Nelson envisions another strong season opposite Haden, thanks to the way they complement each other on the field.
“We’re like Batman and Robin,” Nelson explained, in a video conference call with media earlier this week. “I think we feed off each other on the field. If he makes a play, then I feel like I have to make a play. So I think we pair together very well.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Defense in 2020
Meanwhile, Nelson also expects that the best is yet to come from the Steelers’ defense—and that the Super Bowl is a very realistic possibility, especially if the defense can improve on its performance in 2019, when it had the third-best pass defense in the NFL in terms of yards allowed and finished tied for fifth in points allowed.
“We’re stacked from top to bottom,” Nelson said. “Even non-starters are very talented. We have great coaching. So I think we definitely have the group to take us all the way.”
One of the non-starters who could help the defense take that next step is second-year cornerback Justin Layne, a Michigan State product who was drafted in the third round last year and could play a more prominent role going forward.
In fact, in a Steelers Nation Unite Huddle conducted last month, head coach Mike Tomlin specifically highlighted Layne’s development, talking about him in the same breath as second-year LB Devin Bush, who is also expected to take his game to the next level in 2020.
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