Jordy Nelson racing toward 1st Pro Bowl
This wasn't designed for a touchdown. Jordy Nelson knew it as he stood in his stance, waiting for the snap.
The Carolina Panthers were playing Cover 2 on the Green Bay Packers' opening drive Sunday. Cornerback underneath, safety over the top, they were determined to prevent Nelson from making another one of his game-breaking plays.
It was a familiar coverage. So was the result. Nelson caught quarterback Aaron Rodgers' pass without breaking stride, shook safety Roman Harper in the open field, and raced for a 59-yard touchdown.
"I had a route that adjusted against Cover 2, got in the hole there, hit me and was able to cut back on the guy," Nelson said. "It's not the ideal play for it, but we have adjustments throughout our playbook. Everyone on the same page, we were able to make a play."
Nelson and Rodgers have been on the same page throughout the season's first two months. As the quarterback has ascended to more statistically lofty heights, so has his top receiver.
Their highlights have been memorable. Through seven games, Nelson has turned the patch of grass next to Lambeau Field's visitors' sideline into his personal track. The double move against the New York Jets. The deep post against Minnesota. The fly route against Carolina. Before the season's midway point, Nelson already has three touchdowns longer than 50 yards.
"I like to think that Jordy's always played this way," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "This is the man that we see every day at practice. This is the man. He's getting more opportunities, and he's definitely taking full advantage of them. Jordy's been an outstanding football player for us for a number of years. He's in a groove right now.
"But this is the Jordy Nelson that we see every day."
Big plays are nothing new. Not with Rodgers throwing him the football. Still, Nelson never has been this prolific.
He leads the NFC with 712 yards, seven behind Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown for the league lead. He's tied for fifth in the NFL with 47 catches. Tied for fourth with six touchdowns.
Nelson is the only receiver in the league ranking top five in all three categories.
Projected over 16 games, his pace is historic. Nelson is on track to catch 107 passes for 1,627 yards and 13 touchdowns. No receiver in the league has reached 100/1,600/10 splits in the past decade.
All of this leads to the inevitable. For the first time in his career, Nelson is on a collision course with the Pro Bowl. Only injury – or the Packers reaching Super Bowl XLIX – is likely to prevent Nelson from playing in Glendale, Ariz., on the final Sunday in January.
Yes, he's thought about it.
"It comes up. I mean, because a lot of guys – obviously young guys – think I've been to the Pro Bowl," Nelson told Press-Gazette Media on Monday. "Some coaches think I've been to the Pro Bowl, and I haven't. So it comes up in conversation, but I think on a day-to-day basis it's not part of the thought."
Nelson knows these first seven games haven't been just like every other season. After signing a four-year, $39 million contract extension a couple days before training camp opened, he entered this fall facing new expectations.
Yet Nelson has managed to exceed them.
Where has this jump in production come from? Nelson shrugged. "Opportunities," he said, before repeating the word again. His 73 targets are third in the NFL. In his first six seasons, Nelson has had more than 73 targets only twice.
"When you get more balls thrown your way, you're going to get more yards," Nelson said. "I think as a receiver, the more targets you get, the more catches you're going to get, the more yards you're going to get."
Nelson knew he would play a bigger role in Green Bay's passing game this season, but even he was surprised at how many targets came his way through the first few weeks.
Rodgers threw 30 passes to him in the first two games, setting the stage. Nelson has been targeted at least 12 times in four games, matching the number of games he received 12 targets in his first six seasons combined.
But it's more than opportunities. Nelson has consistently maximized his chances.
"Jordy is so great in the open field," Rodgers gushed Tuesday on his weekly ESPN Milwaukee radio show.
More than numbers, the clearest sign Nelson has made a jump in his game this season is how secondaries have covered him. Each week, he gets more respect. There's been more double teams, safeties constantly rolling over the top to limit big plays.
So far, it hasn't helped. Count the highlights – against New York, Minnesota, Carolina. There are nine games left, plenty more chances for memorable plays.
It's all leading to one destination. Finally, a Pro Bowl is likely in Nelson's future. Not that he's itching to go.
"I think everyone wants that title," Nelson said, "but to be honest with you, the longer in this game and you see the way the Pro Bowl is done, I don't think it means as much as it used to back in the day. But yeah, that's a mark you always want on your resume. I think some of them are skewed a little bit."
-- firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood