A brief overview of three storylines that could help determine the outcome of the Sunday night showdown between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
GREEN BAY – For 21 games, the Green Bay Packers had the NFL’s most prolific quarterback-receiver connection.
It’s not that Jordy Nelson was the league’s biggest playmaker. He didn’t tilt the field against double, sometimes triple coverage like Julio Jones. He didn’t make circus catches look easy like Odell Beckham Jr.
But there wasn’t a quarterback-receiver duo in the league more consistently in rhythm than Nelson and Aaron Rodgers.
Their connection was telepathic. Nelson would break his route, and Rodgers would throw. Nelson would turn for one of those back-shoulder passes, and the football would almost catch him. Someone had to receive those touchdowns from a two-time MVP, yes, but Nelson usually was where Rodgers turned first.
In those 21 games since returning from the torn ACL that cost him all of the 2015 season, Nelson caught 20 touchdown passes from Rodgers. He led the NFL in touchdowns last season. He was leading the league in touchdowns through five games this fall.
“Him and Aaron have just a great chemistry,” quarterback Brett Hundley said this season before he replaced Rodgers as the Packers' starter. “When Aaron’s in trouble, he knows where to go. Jordy is always open. When you have that kind of chemistry with your receiver, it’s no surprise that Jordy is getting the ball.”
From up close, Hundley saw the connection Rodgers had with Nelson.
“Jordy’s his guy,” Hundley said.
For whatever reason, Nelson hasn’t had the same production with Hundley throwing him passes.
Instead, Hundley’s go-to receiver — his guy — has been Davante Adams. Hundley has thrown two touchdown passes since replacing Rodgers after the two-time MVP broke his right collarbone. Adams caught both.
When Hundley needed one completion in Chicago to effectively ice the game, he reared back and tossed it 42 yards down the right sideline. Adams caught that one, too.
Since Hundley replaced Rodgers, Nelson has no touchdowns in five games. He has only 10 catches for 92 yards combined in Hundley’s four starts. In winning the NFL’s comeback player of the year award last season, Nelson exceeded 92 yards in a game seven times, and he caught more than 10 passes once.
Yet Nelson did not lobby for more targets this week when asked about the declining production. No disgruntled star receiver in Green Bay.
In fact, Nelson did the opposite.
“I don’t want him to feel like he needs to try to get me the ball or anything,” Nelson said. “He just needs to continue doing what he’s doing, go through his reads, his progression, do what the coaches are teaching him to do, and we’ll be able to execute.”
Nelson said he has noticed Hundley’s comfort in throwing to Adams. It’s impossible to ignore the difference in production. In Hundley’s four starts, Adams caught 22 passes for 281 yards, including 15 catches for 216 yards in the past two games. In those past two games, Hundley completed 17 passes for 235 yards to other receivers.
There’s a big difference in targets. Hundley has thrown 33 passes to Adams in his four starts, and 21 to Nelson. Adams had 28 targets to Nelson’s 24 in the four games Rodgers started this season, a more even split despite Nelson getting no targets in a Week 2 game at Atlanta when he left in the first quarter with a quad injury.
“I’m not Aaron,” Hundley said Wednesday. “So Aaron has a different relationship with Jordy. That’s something that changes with every quarterback. I’m going to throw it to who’s open.
“I love all those guys. I have a great relationship with Davante, Jordy and (Randall) Cobb.”
In theory, Nelson’s production will return when Rodgers is back on the field, whether that’s this season or next. Even after not catching a touchdown in the past five games, Nelson is tied for fourth in the NFL with six. He has caught the same number of touchdowns this season as guys named Antonio Brown and A.J. Green.
It could be tempting for Nelson to wonder what kind of production he'd have if Rodgers hadn't been injured, but he said that's not how he gauges his season. Regardless of his numbers, Nelson was adamant there’s no growing friction with his current quarterback.
“I’ve never put my game or how I play on my stats,” Nelson said. “I’ve never set goals to get so many yards because I know, in our position as receivers, you can only control so much. That’s what I’m worried about is what I can control, and that’s how I’m running my routes, how I’m doing my assignments, what the coaches are seeing: if they’re coaching me up, and I need to improve those things, and continue to grow in the others.
“You want to be a part of it more, but you have no control over it. Again, I don’t want to sit here and say he needs to throw me the ball, because that’s definitely not the case. I’m going to do my job, they’re going to do theirs. If we continue to do that, and be more consistent in everyone doing that, we’ll be successful.”