GREEN BAY — Their latest act of red-zone telepathy capsized the Seattle Seahawks during a blowout win for the Green Bay Packers that sent tremors through the NFC. This was wide receiver Jordy Nelson and quarterback Aaron Rodgers at their respective and connective bests: the former wriggling free and motioning toward an open spot in the end zone; the latter buying extra time in the pocket to create the perfect throwing window.
It started as first and goal from the 3-yard line with the Packers ahead by 18 in the third quarter. It ended with another Rodgers-to-Nelson score that assured the home team of thorough victory.
“Well, I did that when I was like 10,” wide receivers coach Luke Getsy said. “I told my buddy to throw it over here, right? To me that’s what that reminded me of, just that instinctual football player, two guys that have probably done that a bunch of times on the practice field being able to recognize that he was (going to be open).”
The return of Nelson from a torn ACL last August brought with it alterations to his methods of attack. Gone is the gear of deceptive speed that spawned huge gains off double moves, and in its place is a barrage of steady, modest gains accompanied by remarkable productivity in the red zone.
With 13 games under his belt, Nelson leads the NFL in touchdown receptions with 12, the third time in his career he has scored at least that many. But the average length of Nelson’s touchdowns is just 10.25 yards, and exactly half of them measured 6 yards or less. In fact, only two of his scoring plays have been in excess of 20 yards. All the rest of his touchdowns — some 83 percent — have come in the red zone, a place where his chemistry with Rodgers tends to show up the most.
To put it another way: Nelson has more red-zone touchdowns than any other Packers receiver has total touchdowns.
“He’s got great instincts and he catches the ball really well,” Getsy said. “All those things are really important in those tight windows, those tight spaces. Then obviously the time he’s spent with Aaron as much as anything. Their experience of knowing where each other is going to be, when they’re going to be there, what kind of ball to expect.”
Nelson caught his first touchdown pass in the season opener at Jacksonville on a play that underscored three of the biggest contributors to his red-zone success: intelligence, quick reactions and increased reps in the slot.
On second and 4 from the 6-yard line, the Packers deployed a personnel group with three receivers to the left of the formation. Nelson, who was playing his first game since tearing his ACL the year before, lined up as the receiver closest to left tackle David Bakhtiari. When the ball was snapped he ran left to right across the goal line before sitting in a soft spot of the defense.
Rodgers, meanwhile, was dancing in the pocket behind the line of scrimmage. As his quarterback moved, Nelson drifted deeper into the end zone. He found a new soft spot and threw up his hands to call for the pass. Rodgers fired a dart for the 6-yard score.
“It’s all about being fundamentally sound and creating separation,” Nelson said. “I don’t think there’s drills we work on in the red zone that we don’t use out on the field. Just different routes and concepts just because of the tight spaces. At the end of the day it’s about making the plays and creating separation.”
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First the intelligence. From coach to coach and player to player, Nelson is described as well above average when it comes to deciphering coverages and identifying the defense’s leverage on a particular play. This theme surfaced repeatedly during film review of Nelson’s touchdown receptions.
Consider his 8-yard score against Detroit, his 5-yard score against Atlanta, and his 9-yard score against Seattle. On all three of those plays Nelson made subtle tweaks to the final destination of his routes in response to what the defense presented. Each time he settled into a soft spot right around the goal line that afforded Rodgers a clear throwing lane.
“A lot of things that we do are based on leverage or based upon what the coverage has presented," Getsy said. "Someone who’s done the route as many times as he has does probably a better job than most of identifying and recognizing that sooner. He does as good a job as anybody I’ve been around of quickly identifying those types of things.”
Next is Nelson’s keen ability to react when Rodgers moves outside the pocket. The Packers call these types of plays second- and third-reaction opportunities, and at least three of Nelson’s touchdown receptions fit within this category.
The list includes his 13-yard catch against Washington, when Rodgers scrambled right and Nelson raced across the back of the end zone; the aforementioned 3-yard catch against Seattle, when Nelson essentially pointed to where he wanted the football after his initial route was complete; and the 6-yard score against Jacksonville in which he drifted deeper and deeper the more Rodgers moved. All three times he found open turf between defenders.
“We’ve had great guys over the years who’ve been good at second and third reactions, probably none better than Jordy Nelson,” Rodgers said. “You see the production. Obviously, we’ve had a lot of connections in the red zone over the years, and a lot of them come down to extended plays where he’s making the proper adjustment or, like last week, when he’s pointing, telling me where to throw the football. That comes down to conversations that we had, but also just being a cerebral football player and that’s what we try to get our guys to think about when the windows are tighter down there in the red zone.”
The third element of Nelson’s success is a schematic decision by coach Mike McCarthy, who has used Nelson in the slot more often this year than he has in past seasons. Five of Nelson’s 12 touchdown receptions came on plays in which he began in the slot.
And it goes deeper. The Packers, who travel to Chicago this weekend, have found repeated success with one particular concept that places three receivers to one side of the formation and aligns Nelson closest to the offensive tackle. The other two receivers stand between Nelson and the sideline. It does not matter what happens on the other side of the formation.
From this alignment Nelson tends to run a short curl or shallow cross over the middle of the field, the depth of which brings him a yard or two beyond the goal line at most. More often than not, coverage in this part of the field falls on opposing linebackers who lack the quickness and awareness to stay with Nelson. The Packers will take that mismatch any time.
This particular concept — with Nelson as the nearest of three receivers to one side of the formation — has yielded 60 percent of his touchdowns from the slot and 25 percent of his total haul this season. It is, in some ways, almost indefensible.
“I always go back to just his preparation, his understanding of how the defender is going to play him from a leverage standpoint, a coverage-shell standpoint,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “And then you apply the fundamentals as a receiver. How do you create separation? How do you get open? His ability in those two areas, I think, makes him unique, to go along with his size and strength and speed.”
So if the Packers reach the red zone Sunday, keep your eyes on Jordy Nelson.