KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Chiefs cornerback Steven Nelson found himself ranked among the top cornerbacks in the league this season even before he picked up his third interception of the campaign and broken up three passes in his team's 26-14 win against the Arizona Cardinals, and that merely confirms what Nelson believes about himself.
“As they should,” Nelson said. “That ain't no surprise.”
If Nelson's attitude comes off as cocky, that's definitely OK with him. Cornerbacks thrive on confidence, and Nelson's only question about his play is why it's taken so long for others to notice.
“I've always been like this,” Nelson said. “People are just starting to notice. That's it.”
Healthy once again after a core muscle injury robbed him of the first half of last season, Nelson now also the right side of the field and doesn't find himself bouncing from inside to outside based on formations. Head coach Andy Reid thinks those factors may have led to his being underrated by some.
“I've always thought he was a good player,” Reid said. “He was banged up a little bit before. He's gotten great experience over the last couple of years.”
Nelson emerged as an up-and-comer during his second season in 2016, breaking up 16 passes in 15 games. He seemed poised for a breakout season in 2017 before the injury slowed him down. He finished with four passes defended and a forced fumble in nine games.
Now Nelson is enjoying the breakout season so many have expected. His three interceptions are already a career best, and he now has nine passes defensed as well.
“It feels good, man, just keep stacking them up whenever I can,” said Nelson of his game-sealing interception on Sunday.
He's also on pace for a career high in tackles with 38 combined stops through 10 games. But he picked up none on Sunday, evidence of a dominant performance in which Arizona quarterback Josh Rosen seemed to avoid throwing his direction.
“He competes,” Reid said. “He loves to play the game and he's going to challenge you. He's not afraid to get up there and press when needed. He's smart enough to know when to back off in the different schemes that are shown.”
Reid pointed to back-to-back plays in last week's win against Cleveland as an example of Nelson's progression as a corner. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield connected with receiver Antonio Callaway for a big 38-yard gain.On the following play, Nelson seemed to bait Mayfield into throwing his direction and picked off the pass to end the final Cleveland scoring threat.
“He got beat, but he didn't hang on to it or mope, and then he came back with a big play,” Reid said. “For a corner, having a short memory is very, very important, and that kind of said it all right there for you.”
Pro Football Focus ranks Nelson as the No. 14 corner in the league in both defense and coverage. Nelson believes he's earned that ranking.
“Just getting the ball,” Nelson said. “People are just taking notice, that's all.”
Nelson isn't alone among the Chiefs corner's earning high rankings. Fuller is tied with Nelson in coverage by Pro Football Focus and No. 20 in defense.
“That's what happens when you play on good teams,” Nelson said. “You've got good coaches, good defensive coaches. They expect a lot out of us. The chemistry is definitely there. We just display it on Sundays.”
The Chiefs have a Super Bowl offense beyond a shadow of a doubt, averaging a franchise-record 35.3 points per game during the first 10 games of the season. But no the Chiefs show signs of a defense rounding into form. The defense allowed an an average of 28.7 points through the first six games of the season, but have given up an average of 17 points during the last four games. That's the difference between a top-five defense and a bottom-five defense.
Nelson has been a big part of the turnaround, and he believes that trend can continue.
“We're always going to try to improve,” Nelson said. “We've always got mistakes to improve. It's just week in and week out just getting better, that's what it's about.”