Steven Nelson in front of his locker, staring at his phone. He draped a towel over his shoulder and waved off interviews.
This was Dec. 3, just moments after the Chiefs’ 38-31 loss to the New York Jets, and Nelson –– the Chiefs’ starting nickel corner –– had just finished a rough outing.
He’d been targeted eight times, and the Jets had connected on six of those for 143 yards. He was also whistled for two penalties, one of which extended the Jets’ game-winning scoring drive and another that gave them another crack at a two-point conversion (which was successful).
For a competitor like Nelson, a man who loves football more than most, it was incredibly tough to stomach.
“I just feel like it’s opened so many doors for me, on and off the field,” Nelson said of football. “I just love the game.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who has coached Nelson for three years now, knows that football matters to Nelson, which is why Sutton wasn’t surprised by the third-year corner’s impressive bounce-back performance in the Chiefs’ next game, a 26-15 win over the Oakland Raiders.
“Highly competitive player,” Sutton said. “He’ll battle ya to the end of the game. He loves playing, and he practices at a high, high tempo ... he’s going to always play hard.”
Against the Raiders, Nelson finished with four tackles, a pass deflection and a forced fumble, with the latter coming via a unique trait Sutton has come to appreciate.
“He has a unique ability to get the ball out at the end of the play before the receiver takes it to the ground,” Sutton said. “He does that in practice all the time.”
Nelson set the tone for the Chiefs’ improved defensive energy early against the Raiders, too, swatting away a pass intended for Michael Crabtree on the very first play and barking –– loudly –– at the talkative receiver.
For Nelson, it was a performance more in line with what he knows he can do, though people do not know how difficult it is to be the nickel corner in the Chiefs’ defense and line up against the slot.
“Every defense you run, somebody has a tough job,” Sutton said. “All defenses aren’t equal. He has to understand that, and every player has to understand that, because you don’t want to lose confidence in the player and you don’t want to lose confidence in the defense.”
Nelson understands the challenge ahead of him on a game-to-game basis.
“It’s different,” Nelson said. “It’s a whole different position than cornerback.”
Here’s how: Corners on the outside can deduce what type of routes might be coming based on down, distance, tendency and formations. The very best –– like the Chiefs’ Marcus Peters –– can look at all that, plus the release of the receiver off the ball, and take educated guesses about where the ball might be headed.
A key to computing all that, however, is knowing that the sideline is the cornerback’s friend. Nickel corners don’t have that, however. Without the safety net of the sideline, they have to compute everything the outside corners must, with the added threat of stopping the run and accounting for a “two-way go,” which allows receivers –– with the extra space afforded inside –– to use whatever release they need off the snap to beat the defensive back and get open.
Throw in the type of receiver who usually plays in the slot –– speedy, with excellent route running ability –– and it’s no wonder why nickel corner is the most difficult position to play.
“The style of routes he’s involved with are a little more difficult to cover because he can beat you and get leverage on you quick, and the ball will come out quick,” Sutton said. “When you’re on the outside, the ball has to travel a greater distance, so you have a tick (more) of recovery time that maybe the nickel doesn’t have.”
That’s why Nelson made little impact as a rookie, when he was forced to watch, and absorbed as he learned a position he’d never played before. That’s also why he’s studied his tail off ever since.
With the use of his trusty iPad, he spends at least two additional hours each day studying the upcoming opponent’s tendencies during his down time at home.
“You get an extra advantage on your opponent by doing it on your own,” Nelson said. “It’s a lot of different positions in one. You’ve got to know what everybody’s doing.”
Nelson will need to again be on point Saturday night, when the Chiefs host the Los Angeles Chargers, 7-6, in a game that could decide the AFC West crown at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Chargers feature one of the game’s best receivers and premier route runners in Keenan Allen, who has already caught 83 passes for 1,143 yards and five touchdowns this season.
Nelson won’t be the only Chief tasked with guarding Allen, since he moves around, but as the nickel corner in Sutton’s defense, Nelsone knows he always has to be prepared.
“He’s a big part of what they do,” Nelson said of Allen, “so obviously when he comes in there, my antenna’s going to be up.”