Instead of being surprised, Steven Nelson already knew what was coming through memory and film study.
The Texans’ veteran starting cornerback, playing against the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise that released him three years ago two years into three-year, $25.5 million contract, reacted instinctively.
Nelson had already watched Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett deliver a 72-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Calvin Austin III one week ago against the Las Vegas Raiders. On Sunday, Nelson was in single coverage against Austin and he recognized what was coming: the same exact route.
Running step for step with Austin and mirroring his pattern, Nelson leapt for the interception, his second of the season. Advanced knowledge of the Steelers’ passing game paid off for Nelson.
“Absolutely, just a lot of film study,” Nelson said. “Like last week, they scored a touchdown on a similar play with the same player. I recognized it and got a bead on it and played the ball.”
During a dominant 30-6 victory at NRG Stadium, Nelson provided a key play and a 33-yard return that led to an early field goal. He was targeted twice and allowed zero receptions against the Steelers as the Texans evened their record at 2-2 and allowed just 132 passing yards.
Nelson, signed to an upgraded deal at the start of training camp that raises his maximum value to $6.5 million this season in the final year of his contract,, leads the Texans with two interceptions. He also had a clutch pass deflection against the Jacksonville Jaguars on a deep Trevor Lawrence throw intended for wide receiver Calvin Ridley.
Even with cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. on injured reserve with a hamstring injury, safety Jalen Pitre, now back after missing two games with a bruised lung, and safety Jimmie Ward missing the first two games of the season with a hip injury, the Texans rank ninth in pass defense. They rank first in allowing the fewest touchdown psases in the league, surrendering just two scores though the air.
To intercept a pass against the Steelers, one of the former teams for Nelson, a former Kansas City Chiefs third-round draft pick from Oregon State, was significant to him.
“It was great, man,” Nelson said. “I’m one of those guys I watch a lot of the greats, Michael Jordan, Kobe. They look for any little thing to have a chip on their shoulder. I keep all receipts. That just gave me a little extra chip.”
Nelson, 30, now has 11 career interceptions in 103 career starts with 405 tackles and 70 passes defensed. He was voted a team captain by his teammates and has made a strong impression on Texans coach DeMeco Ryans after being absent from the majority of the offseason. When he reported for training camp, his contract situation was quickly resolved. He has emerged as a steady presence on an improving defense that has helped the Texans win consecutive games.
“Steven has been consistent,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said. “When he came back for training camp, Steven has been consistent. He’s been a leader every day. His preparation throughout the week, as I just highlighted to our guys, Steven, he studies very hard. Throughout the week, if there’s a route that he knows is coming, he’s going to step in and he’s going to make the play and it shows in games.
“He’s prepared,. He understands. He understands splits, alignments. He understands route concepts and he’s able to jump plays and make plays on the ball, just because of his mental game. He’s a very sharp player. Excited to have him, excited to see his growth so far throughout the year.”
Nelson has been targeted just 10 times this season, allowing seven receptions for 101 yards. Opposing quarterbacks have a combined 62.9 passer rating against him. Nelson has a 79.6 coverage grade, ranking him 11th among all cornerbacks this season.
“Every day, man, just trying to be a pro and a leader to young guys,” Nelson said. “It comes with taking care of your body and doing everything the right way. Man, it means a lot, bro, because we put in a lot of work. To put it on tape, it feels good.”
To beat a tradition-rich team like the Steelers was something of a milestone for the Texans, who could become a contender in the AFC South division.
“Oh, I think so,” Nelson said. “That’s what we always try to do is impose our will on other teams. Guys are flying around. The battle isn’t over. We’ve got to keep going and keep stacking.”
Texans defensive coordinator Matt Burke praised Nelson for his professionalism and leadership. The Texans are starting Shaq Griffin at corner with Stingley Jr. sidelined. He’s out six to eight weeks, per a source.
“Man, he’s been such a pro,” Burke said. “He’s been really cool. Really cool to witness him work. He missed some of that offseason, so I didn’t get to work through that with him. Since he’s been back, he has been you could argue, our most consistent and steady player on defense. Just practice in and practice out, game in and game out, he is as reliable as they come for me.
“He’s always in the spot he’s supposed to be in. He’s trying to play the techniques we’re asking him to play. There is just such a level of professionalism and consistency from him that I think that’s where it shows. He’s played really well for us this year, and his performance to me is just part of his nature of who he is from a preparation and practice standpoint. He has been as consistent of a player as I’ve been around in a while.”
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.