GREEN BAY - Jordy Nelson has caused a lot of misery for Green Bay Packers opponents over the years and the Minnesota Vikings have not been immune, even during their defensive renaissance under coach Mike Zimmer.
It was in Week 16 last year that Zimmer decided he wasn’t going to let Nelson beat him and constructed a game plan that would call for Pro Bowl corner Xavier Rhodes to shadow him all around Lambeau Field.
It didn’t work so well: The Vikings' secondary resisted the strategy and though Rhodes eventually did match with him, Nelson caught nine passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns.
Zimmer wasn’t the first to employ the strategy – among the corners who have been assigned to Nelson in recent years are Detroit’s Darius Slay, Cleveland’s Joe Haden, New England’s Darrelle Revis and Miami’s Brent Grimes – and it was logical to say at the time Zimmer wouldn’t be the last to do it.
As the Packers prepare to play the Vikings for the first time this season, expect Rhodes to shadow the opponents’ best receiver again.
Only don’t be surprised if it’s Davante Adams.
Coming off a game-winning touchdown catch with 11 seconds left in the Packers’ 35-31 victory against the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday, Adams is quickly gaining favor with NFL personnel evaluators. Amid a contract year, Adams doesn’t compare statistically with other top receivers in the game, but he’s being viewed as the Packers’ top threat.
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Four long-time NFL personnel executives were asked, if they were Zimmer, who would they have Rhodes shadow, Adams or Nelson? Three said unequivocally Adams and a fourth said Nelson but with the caveat he would give help from a safety on Adams and Randall Cobb.
Nelson may lead the NFL with six touchdown catches, but he is 32 years old and injuries – from a torn ACL in 2015 to broken ribs last year and thigh and back injuries this year -- have taken a considerable toll on his meticulously trained body.
He has 19 catches for 230 yards for a decent 12.1-yard average, but he has only one catch of 40 or more yards and his touchdown catches average just 9.7 yards in length. Nelson’s long catch of 58 yards was a pass thrown into double coverage that he came back for.
His next longest, a 32-yard touchdown against Seattle, came in one-on-one coverage with a linebacker.
Three of the personnel people feel Nelson has lost a step, but one said, “Just slightly. He’s just beat up.”
Nelson’s superb route running and telepathic connection with quarterback Aaron Rodgers still make him a threat, but his repertoire is becoming limited and the younger Adams may be hitting the stride Nelson hit when he was in his fourth year in the league.
Adams leads the team in receptions with 23 for 285 yards (12.4 average) and four touchdowns, but his catch percentage (59.0) is way behind Randall Cobb’s (74.2) and Nelson’s (67.9) and he leads the receivers in drops with two.
In his defense, he doesn’t get the number of featured snaps in the slot that Nelson or Cobb do and he’s asked to go over the middle more than any other receiver. Scouts have to be impressed with his toughness given how he recovered from the vicious hit delivered by Chicago Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan, but ultimately he’ll be judged by big plays.
“The talent has already been there,” receivers coach Luke Getsy said. “The football knowledge has always been there. I think the experiences plus the successes that he’s been having are helping him take his game to another level.”
The truly head-scratching part of the nine-play, 75-yard winning drive at the end of the Dallas game was how defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli left rookie Jourdan Lewis, a third-round pick out of Michigan, to cover whoever lined up on the far left side of the Packers formation.
With Nelson standing on the sideline with an apparent back injury, coach Mike McCarthy and Rodgers went with Adams to the left almost the entire series.
Rodgers threw four times to Adams on the drive, completing two, for gains of 14 yards on the first play and 12 on the last play. Adams’ strength is his quick feet and superb body control and he used both to turn Lewis in circles.
Asked if that will be the last time he ever faces a rookie in that situation, Adams smiled and said, “Hope not. Either way you’ve got to go run the route and get open so it doesn’t matter who’s out there.”
Maybe, but in the 11 regular-season games that remain, increased attention will make his life a lot more difficult. He need only ask Nelson about that.
If opponents target him as the No. 1 receiver then he’ll be the one facing either safety help over the top or the other team’s shutdown corner. The more success a receiver has, the more attention he’ll receive and it very well could start with the 6-1, 218-pound Rhodes in his grill Sunday.
“He’s going against a lot of really good corners over the last four years,” Getsy said. “His confidence in his plan against those guys, plus the knowledge of our offense, I think all of that (has improved).
“His confidence level is really high and I think that he believes in his approach against different defenders.”
Through the Vikings’ first six games, Rhodes generally has shadowed the other team’s best receiver – among them Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans and Detroit’s Marvin Jones – and there’s no reason to think he won’t do it against the Packers.
Rhodes held Brown to five catches for 62 yards, Evans to seven catches for 67 yards and Jones to two catches for 42 yards. The Bears did not throw at him at all on Monday night.
“He’s a big and long corner who is very physical so he can out-muscle most wide receivers,” an NFC personnel man said. “He has improved his ability to drop his weight and transition when playing smaller receivers. His size, speed and physicality make him tough.”
The 6-1, 215-pound Adams came to camp less pumped up and it has shown in improved quickness. He’ll need all of it because Rhodes’ arms measure an incredible 33 ¾ inches and if he gets his hands on a receiver, it’s usually over.
“I think Davante has an attacking mentality off the ball and when guys are getting their hands on him, he’s a physical dude,” Getsy said. “He’s a big, strong guy, so he’s able to handle taller, he’s able to handle shorter with his quickness, he’s able to handle strong corners as well.
“So I think he’s a tough matchup for a lot of different corners with his ability to be quick and powerful.”
If Rhodes winds up on Adams all game, it will be a good test for the Packers receiver, who is an unrestricted free agent after this season and in line for a nice payday. One of the personnel executives estimated Adams is right around the No. 15 spot among the top receivers in the NFL, which means the Packers’ starting point would be the $10 million per year average Nelson and Randall Cobb earn.
It’s likely Adams’ number is well above that.
Before he cashes in, however, he must show he can handle increased attention. Adams said he welcomes the challenge.
“I feel I can go out there and rumble with the best of them, too,” he said. “Either way, I’ll get out there and do what I’ve got to do.”