GREEN BAY – He has two touchdowns in two games. Already snared 11 passes. Quickly, Jordy Nelson reclaimed his place as the Green Bay Packers’ top receiver.
He has beaten a former first-round cornerback. Shown the savvy to get lost in zone coverage. Moved the chains.
If this were anyone else returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament that stole one year of football, with a 20-month drought since his last meaningful snap, these first two games might be considered a success.
But this is Jordy Nelson. Former All-Pro receiver. The man who beat Darrelle Revis on a quick slant two years ago and – poof – had a 45-yard touchdown.
Nelson’s 11 catches through two games yielded a modest 105 yards. Yet to return are the home-run plays of 2014. Nelson ranks tied for 11th in the NFL with 20 targets, tied for 25th in receptions, tied for 61st in yardage.
His 9.5 yards-per-catch average is tied for 105th.
“Those plays that you’re used to seeing him make,” receivers coach Luke Getsy said, “I think they’re in the near future.”
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Big plays were in his DNA. Before he tore his ACL, nobody in the NFL stretched a field like Nelson. He had at least one 40-yard catch in seven of his 16 games during 2014.
At age 31, it’s fair to wonder whether Nelson once again will be a deep threat. Through two games, does he feel like the player he was before reconstructive knee surgery? Nelson, almost by reflex, shrugged when he was asked this week.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Two years ago, I probably don’t remember what it felt like. This Sunday was better than the week before. As long as that continues, I’ll be excited.”
Nelson was more productive Sunday in Minnesota than he was in the Packers’ opener at Jacksonville.
No, there still hasn’t been a 40-yard catch. But his reception over Trae Waynes that set up the Packers’ second touchdown went for 39. Nelson had a 21-yard catch to convert a third down in the second quarter.
His yards-per-catch average rose to 14.6 against the Vikings, up from 5.3 against the Jaguars. At least twice, Nelson beat Waynes deep. It happened on the Packers’ fourth offensive snap, a third-and-5, when Nelson had a half step. Rodgers’ pass sailed to the sideline.
In the third quarter, Nelson ran a step and a half past Waynes down the left sideline with no safety help. Rodgers was sacked on the play, though it looked like he had enough time to throw a pass.
Nelson played 68 of the Packers’ 71 snaps at the Vikings, a 96 percent clip that seems high for a player two games returned from major injury forcing a long absence. It was an uptick from the 86 percent of the Packers' snaps (54 of 64) Nelson played in Jacksonville.
“I felt really good out there in Minnesota,” Nelson said. “I felt like I ran quite a bit, and never got too winded. The couple times I did come out, it was mainly because I was 50 yards downfield and it would take me a while to get back to the line of scrimmage. That was encouraging for myself, and I think that will continue to grow, and I want to be back to where I can play every snap possible that’s out there and take advantage of those opportunities.
Nelson isn’t worried about the lack of “shot” plays through two weeks. More goes into those, he explained, than simply running fast down the field. The defense has to present a certain look, making itself vulnerable to a deep pass.
It takes some luck, Nelson said. He suggested the Packers might have called for a “shot” play this season, but checked out when the defense didn’t give the right look.
“Those come when they come,” Nelson said. “It’s hard to predict those. … For whatever reason, a couple years ago, we were very fortunate and had everything timed up correctly, and right on time and the defense was the right play. That’s how things happen sometimes. It’s part of it.
“I’m not sitting there waiting, and won’t say I’m (not) back until I catch a deep one.”
Eventually, the Packers expect Nelson to once again stretch the field. That vision of him running free behind the secondary could return Sunday during the team’s home opener against the Detroit Lions.
It also could take a few weeks.
Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect Nelson to miss so much time and immediately be the player he was before surgery. Nelson missed the first few weeks of training camp and played no preseason snaps. Most players returning from ACL surgery require time before returning to their old form.
Through two games, Nelson’s current form looks like this: on pace to catch 88 passes for 840 yards and 16 touchdowns in a full season.
Are they Nelson’s numbers from 2014? No, but the Packers gladly would take them.
“I definitely think he’s progressing,” Getsy said, “from where he was in the end of preseason to Game 1, and then I thought he got even better in Game 2. He started to get through all the getting back into game shape, and what it takes to make somebody miss (a tackle), what it takes to take on some contact, and all that good stuff.
“I think he’s making really good strides, and I think he’s just going to continue to get better each week.”
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