Matt Nelson had to get it out of his system. And he didn’t have much time.
“And I’m like, ‘OK, who’s on the right side? Khalil Mack,’” Nelson said Monday during a conference call.
Lions offensive line coach Hank Fraley, as well as a few teammates, saw they needed to reassure Nelson, an undrafted defensive end out of Iowa the Lions signed in 2019 as a conversion project.
“And Hank’s like, ‘It’s football. Don’t worry about it, it’s football,’” Nelson said. “And some of the other guys who were playing were like, ‘You’ve got this, dude.’
“And I kind of got that out of my system, took a deep breath before I stepped on the field and ‘it’s football, here we go.’ So I got that out of my system before the first rep.”
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Nelson played well the rest of the game. He played the final 49 snaps and kept Mack, one of the NFL’s best edge rushers, off the stat sheet as part of an offensive line effort that allowed just two sacks and three quarterback hits on Matthew Stafford.
“I think we need to make sure we talk about Matt Nelson stepping in, a converted defensive lineman,” interim coach Darrell Bevell said Monday. “I know I said that yesterday, but to step in there and — Khalil Mack, to block him, and really not show up on the stat sheet, him or Robert Quinn, is a big deal.”
As big of a challenge as it was to face Mack, it was also major validation for Nelson to know he could compete at the highest level after his recent position change.
“Yeah, it was definitely a huge confidence boost to me,” he said. “But Hank will never let me have too much confidence because he’ll always be, ‘Hey, you need to work on this, you need to work on that.’
“But it was a kind of ‘OK, I can do this.’ Khalil Mack’s a great player, he has been perennially an All-Pro, Pro Bowler, a future Hall of Famer. So to go out and compete with him was amazing and being able to keep Matthew clean was awesome.”
Nelson turned in an impressive performance, though it wasn’t perfect. He allowed Mack to beat him with an inside move that forced Stafford out of the pocket and into a sack by Bilal Nichols. And Quinn also beat him inside on a play-action call that led to Stafford throwing an interception.
Stafford credited the offensive line and specifically Nelson for ample protection that allowed him throw deep and mount a comeback.
“They did an outstanding job of giving me time in the pocket,” Stafford said Sunday. “Obviously Matt Nelson had to come in and block Khalil Mack all day. Guy was playing defensive line two years ago. So pretty impressive what he was able to do today. And really, all those guys up front did a great job. So without time, I can’t get the ball down the field.”
When Nelson couldn’t be in perfect position, he did what he could to hold off the Bears’ rushers.
“Matthew’s a great quarterback,” Nelson said, “and whatever we can do to allow him to make plays for us; I just had to sell out (by diving) on a few of them when I got beat and hoped he didn’t get to Matthew or anything like that, so I was just trying to do whatever I could to keep him clean.”
Nelson said he’s usually told in pregame warmups what his rotational role will be, so he knew he would be the first substitute tackle Sunday. And when it came to facing Mack, he called on his experience in practice going against rushers like Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara and remembered what his coaches have told him.
“Honestly, it was just like you’ve got to resort back to the fundamentals,” Nelson said. “Going against Trey and Romeo and all those guys on our defense has been really awesome because dealing with Hank and (former offensive line coach Jeff Davidson) last year they were always like, ‘Hey, no matter what you’re doing — (scout) team, with the ones, with the twos — always win every rep, try to win every rep.’
“And so that was my mentality is like OK, this rep here, I’m going to focus on my fundamentals and try to win this rep. And just take it one play at a time.”
Contact Carlos Monarrez at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.