GREEN BAY – During stretches of their seven seasons together with the Green Bay Packers, Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson often seemed as though they were playing keep away in the backyard.
Rodgers threw it, Nelson caught it and no one in the middle even got a hand on it.
This year, not only are other players getting a hand on it, Rodgers and Nelson sometimes look like they’re not playing catch with each other. Over eight games, Rodgers has thrown the ball to Nelson more than anyone else on the team and yet Nelson ranks third on the team in receptions with 38.
The two have connected on 52.1 percent of the passes Rodgers has thrown to Nelson (38 catches on 73 targets), according to NFL-provided statistics. Starting with 2014 and going backward, Nelson has had catch percentages of 64.9, 66.9, 67.1, 70.8, 70.9 and 61.1.
Nelson, coming off an ACL injury that sidelined him for all of 2015, has a team-leading seven touchdowns and is averaging a healthy 13.4 yards per reception. Rodgers unquestionably still trusts him like no other receiver, but the cost seems to be pretty high for a team whose passing game ranks 19th in the NFL.
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“It’s really trust,” Rodgers said of throwing to Nelson. “It’s based on a lot of reps over the years in game situations and then a lot of things we’ve done in practice and talk about. We just have a lot of faith in each other where, if he gets to a spot, the ball’s going to be where it needs to be.”
Nelson has made some phenomenal catches when tightly covered and added to his collection Sunday against Indianapolis when he ripped the ball out of the air just before it hit safety Darius Butler in the chest for a 26-yard score. It almost matched the thievery on a touchdown Nelson scored in Dallas in 2013 when he reached over the shoulders of cornerback Orlando Scandrick and snatched the ball away like he was Bill Russell rebounding a basketball.
But Nelson isn’t piling up first downs like he usually does; he’s on pace for 54 after posting 71 in ’14 and 60 in ’13. He isn't making many of his patented sideline catches. He ranks tied for 92nd among qualifying receivers with an average of 5.1 yards after the catch.
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It's naturally assumed that the knee injury has something to do with Nelson not producing as consistently as in the past and it could be the case. But he has continually said it has not been an issue for him. He said since it's his first time coming back from the injury he doesn't know if he'll see improvement athletically as the season goes on.
When asked about his performance thus far, he didn’t point to production as a concern as much as overall performance.
“To me, it’s been all right,” Nelson said of the numbers. “I’d like to be more consistent with what I’m doing, but I don’t know if that’s from having a year off and getting back or what. I’m still working at it. I’m halfway through. We’ll see how it is at the end of the year.”
Tennessee coach Mike Mularkey, whose team will be looking to shut down Rodgers and Nelson, said he still considers them dangerous.
"Still playing at a high level, still can’t let him get behind you," Mularkey said of Nelson. "Big, fast receiver that obviously there’s a huge trust factor that they have over their career, the two of them. You know, tough to defend."
In the meantime, fellow receivers Randall Cobb and Davante Adams are posting solid catch percentages. Cobb has caught 71.9 percent of the balls thrown to him (41 of 57) and Adams has caught 67.7 percent (44 of 65).
The guy with the ball in his hand first is the one who decides which receivers will be targeted and then the rest is up to them. Rodgers, however, has spent a lot of time scrambling, unsatisfied that his throw will be caught.
Sometimes the line between open and not open is very thin and Rodgers has to trust his receiver will come down with the ball if he’s covered.
“You’re not always going to be wide open, but the trust Aaron has in us and everything is something we continue to build on,” said Adams, who leads the team with 44 catches for 465 yards and six touchdowns. “It’s just winning those opportunities when he does throw that ball and make sure we’re catching those contested passes.
“That’s what it takes to get to the next level, it separates the really good from the great.”
The majority of those balls seem to go to Nelson.
“That’s his decision,” Nelson said. “That’s why he gets paid the big money. I’m just running my route. I don’t have determination where he throws it and where he doesn’t.
“To me, I assume he goes through his progression and sees what he likes and we all have our job and that is to execute. It’s ours to create that separation and make the play if he gives us that opportunity,”
The personnel packages coach Mike McCarthy is using on offense also factor in how the ball is being distributed. Following the loss of running back Eddie Lacy to an ankle injury, McCarthy has been spreading out defenses with four- and five-receiver sets, looking to shift more of the offensive burden to the passing game.
Against Indianapolis on Sunday, Rodgers appeared a number of times to be either passing over or just not seeing open receivers. It happened at least twice inside the red zone on series that ended in field goals.
“Based on numbers (of receivers) that might happen,” Adams said. “(It) depends on who is number what in the read for his progressions. But having more receivers it’s going to be harder to find. Three guys might be open and he might look at one who wasn’t open. That’s just how the game goes.”
Heading into the game at Tennessee on Sunday, Rodgers is probably going to face more man-to-man coverage on his receivers, which has been a problem. If Rodgers isn’t sharper with his decision-making and willing to trust some of his younger receivers more, it could be more of the same on offense.
Still playing at a high level, still can’t let him get behind you. Big, fast receiver that obviously there’s a huge trust factor that they have over their career, the two of them. You know, tough to defend.
Right now, the percentages aren’t as favorable throwing to Nelson as they once were and Rodgers may have to accept that. They haven't been turning the playing field into their own backyard much anymore.