UNITY TWP, Pa. – Steven Nelson is currently experiencing a summer of firsts.
For the first time in his career, the Steelers’ free agent acquisition isn’t surrounded by a group of teammates he’s familiar with. He isn’t playing in the same defensive scheme that he flourished in. He isn’t donning a red and white jersey in mid-summer heat at Missouri Western State University, where the Chiefs annually hold training camp. He isn’t playing for Andy Reid, the coach who drafted him. And he isn’t lining up alongside Eric Berry in the secondary.
In his first training camp with the Steelers, Nelson – a fifth-year corner out of Oregon State – has been tasked with acclimating to a whole new culture, coaching staff, team and playbook.
One person, in particular, who Nelson has leaned on through the transition is Joe Haden.
Nelson’s play during camp caught Mike Tomlin’s eye early on, and through 11 practices, he and Haden have held down the starting left and right cornerback positions, respectively.
“I just like his overall, general approach to the work,” Tomlin said on August 1. “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.”
Tomlin’s use of opportunistic is an accurate way to describe the defensive coaching staff’s emphasis during camp with the cornerbacks. They are calling for more aggressiveness than years past, particularly in jumping routes.
Nelson fits the script perfectly in that capacity.
“Just playing cornerback, you’re always having that edge and chip on your shoulder to make plays,” Nelson said. “You have to make some athletic plays sometimes going against these good high-powered offenses nowadays. You have to make some splash plays.”
This season, the secondary will look to take a step forward under the direction of new senior defensive assistant/secondary coach Teryl Austin. With the downfall of 2016 first-round pick Artie Burns, Keith Butler needed an aggressive corner he could trust opposite Haden, who would relieve some pressure off of an otherwise inexperienced cornerback core. After losing Coty Sensabaugh, the Steelers were left with Brian Allen, Cameron Sutton – both entering their third years with minimal starting experience – and rookie Justin Layne.
After Haden’s injury setback on Wednesday, Nelson will presumably be the team’s No. 1 corner when the Steelers open the preseason against the Buccaneers on Friday. However, Nelson said he wasn’t sure about how much playing time he’ll receive – but regardless, he just wants to be out there.
“I want to play,” he said. “That’s just who I am.