GREEN BAY – His big plays are more elegant than explosive now. They come with the meticulous touch of an artist refining their craft. A toe tap on the sideline. A perfectly timed jump. A crisp route cut.
Jordy Nelson is not rattling off 80-yard touchdowns every week. Not leaving NFL secondaries in his dust. This is not 2014.
His highlight reel this season could be set to Coltrane, not Kanye.
“There’s things that he does,” tight end Jared Cook said, “that you can’t really coach. There’s things that he does that he puts his mark on, his stamp. He plays above everybody else while he’s out there.”
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He no longer overpowers an opponent. A year after missing an entire season with his torn ACL, Nelson’s unbridled speed is last to return.
He won’t talk about it. Doesn’t want to compare. Ask him if he feels like the same, All-Pro receiver from two years ago, and he’ll dismissively grunt. Ask what move he put on Houston Texans cornerback Charles James to get so utterly wide open on a 32-yard touchdown catch in Sunday’s fourth quarter, and he’ll laugh.
“I don’t put moves on anyone,” Nelson said, cheeks turning red.
But the Green Bay Packers' veteran receiver keeps getting open. Then he gets open again. And again.
You look up, and Nelson is catching eight passes for 118 yards in a 21-13 win against the Texans, doing more than his share to keep the Packers’ playoff hopes alive.
Look up again, and Nelson’s numbers this season jump off the page. At the three-quarter pole, he has 69 catches for 872 yards. He’s one of three NFL receivers with 10 touchdowns.
Nelson is on pace to finish his first season back from the torn ACL with 92 catches for 1,162 yards and 13 touchdowns.
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“I don’t know how much more Jordy needs to prove,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s going through what every great player goes through in that first year back from major injury. He practices every day, and those are the little things that are probably most important. Because I think his performance speaks for itself.”
It’s those little things that have boosted Nelson’s first season back. Teammates speak of him like a professor, someone who understands the game intimately. No one, Cook said, knows the Packers playbook better.
In some ways, 2016 is among the most impressive seasons of his career. He has had great numbers before. Caught 98 passes in 2014. Caught 15 touchdowns in 2011. Crossed the 1,000-yard mark three times.
But that was back when big plays were the norm from week to week. Before knee surgery. Before sitting an entire year. Before his 30th birthday.
Nelson might not have the same, burning speed. He compensates with deception.
“He’s consistent in all his movement,” safety Morgan Burnett explained. “You think he’s doing one route, and then he’s doing another route. He’s very consistent, very crafty.
“He’s a great receiver in this league. In my opinion, one of the best receivers in this league.”
On a day Davante Adams was almost shut out, Nelson resumed his place atop the Packers’ passing-game pecking order. He caught more than half Aaron Rodgers’ 209 passing yards. When the quarterback needed a big play, he targeted Nelson.
They weren’t big chunks of yardage, at least not early. Until his fourth-quarter touchdown, Nelson’s first five grabs were less than 10 yards each. Then he lost James along the left sideline, and waited for Rodgers’ pass like a centerfielder in the end zone.
“We were just running side by side,” Nelson said. “I don’t know if he tripped over his feet, or my feet, or what. I was trying to stack him and keep the leverage so Aaron could throw it outside. He just fell down, and luckily Aaron saw me late and was able to get the ball to me.”
Floodgates opened after the touchdown.
Nelson caught a 21-yard pass to jumpstart the Packers next drive, signaling first down as he stood on the Texans sideline. Four plays later, he leaped over corner Kareem Jackson to haul in 28 yards on third-and-6, showing the type of body control that hasn’t waned after knee surgery.
In a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives, Nelson caught three passes for 81 yards. It was reminiscent of last week at Philadelphia, when Nelson caught three passes for 49 yards on the game’s defining, fourth-quarter drive.
It’s the kind of production the Packers could have only hoped for before the season. This journey back from a torn ACL is loaded with uncertainty, especially for a 31-year-old receiver. Nelson’s twists, turns, peaks and valleys have dotted his season.
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Six times, he has caught at least 90 yards in a game. Four times, he has been held under 40.
“It’s a grind every week,” Nelson said. “Sometimes, you wake up Monday and you don’t know how you’re going to be able to do anything on Wednesday or Thursdays, and you realize the ultimate goal is to play on Sunday. I feel great right now after this game. These noon games are great because I’ll bet you tonight, when I go to bed, I’ll feel fine and ready to go tomorrow."
Then, you can bet, Jordy Nelson will wake up wide open.
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