There are several excellent quarterback-receiver duos in the NFL.
Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, for instance, probably is the most explosive and talented.
But is there a duo that has a better chemistry, a better sense of what the other can and will do, than the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson?
The two have been on a tear during the Packers’ five-game winning streak. In that time, Nelson is tied with Seattle’s Doug Baldwin for most receptions in the league (38), and Nelson’s 13.9 yards per those catches dwarfs Baldwin’s 9.2 yards.
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But it’s not just that Rodgers and Nelson are putting up big numbers. Plenty of receivers and quarterbacks do that in this league. Eleven receivers have 30 or more receptions in the last five games, and one, Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, has more receiving yards than Nelson (543 to 528).
What stands out is that Rodgers and Nelson are operating on another plane as far as timing and the ability to hook up when a play breaks down or requires an improvised throw. It’s a testament to their instincts after nine seasons working together and the athletic skills that have to come together to make those plays.
On Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings, Nelson caught nine of his 11 targets for 154 yards and two touchdowns. That, by the way, made the Rodgers-Nelson combo good for a passer rating of 158.3, the maximum.
You can tell Rodgers is looking for Nelson, especially when plays break down. And it’s not that they’re hitting on big plays — their 60-yard pass that essentially won the game at Chicago last week notwithstanding – but that they’re consistently finding ways to keep drives alive and to get the ball from the red zone to the end zone.
Of course, there are the throws where Rodgers scrambles and Nelson works his way across the field to an open area or for a tip-toe catch along the sidelines. But what says as much about their chemistry as anything is how many times Nelson catches the ball while sliding to the ground. That’s not an accident.
Some of those throws might look like they’re low and a little behind him, but that’s what makes them good plays. If Rodgers were to lead Nelson, there’s a good chance a defensive back would get a big, clean shot to jar the ball loose and perhaps worse. On the flip side, Rodgers can make those throws because Nelson has an underappreciated athletic ability: the body control to go down and dig out the ball and avoid the hit.
For a lot of receivers, those are incompletions because they can’t get to the ball.
We saw that a couple of times against the Vikings. In fact, Nelson’s two-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter was a quintessential Rodgers-Nelson play.
Nelson wasn’t open immediately because linebacker Anthony Barr hugged him at the goal line. But as Rodgers slipped out of the pocket to his right, Nelson faked to the middle, then went toward Rodgers’ side as he worked to the back of the end zone.
Rodgers scanned the field as he drifted, saw Nelson and threw a thigh-high pass right on him, rather than leading him. As Nelson made the catch, cornerback Trae Waynes was barreling toward him, but Nelson was able to make a baseball slide as he caught the ball to avoid the hit. You could see him get down as he spotted Waynes, and Waynes flew just over him, barely landing a glancing blow. Touchdown.
In the second quarter, same thing only better. On a second down, Nelson ran an in route from the slot against zone coverage. He found an opening in the middle of the field, between linebacker Eric Kendricks and safety Harrison Smith. But rather than lead Nelson, Rodgers put the ball low and away from the closing Smith, which forced Nelson to slide and reach back slightly for the tough catch.
Nelson dug out and covered up the ball, and Smith couldn’t do anything but touch him down. An easy-looking 12-yard gain. Brilliant throw, and great body control on the catch. First down.
The two make plays like that look routine. Rodgers knows he can put the ball there and Nelson will catch it. Nelson isn’t as fast as he was before ACL surgery, but he has uncommon body control, better than any other receiver on the roster. That’s how he makes those catches look easy.
With Rodgers dialed in and Nelson getting stronger in his return from surgery as the season goes on, this is a dangerous duo. Look for the Detroit Lions to do more this week to keep them from being the difference in Sunday’s matchup for the NFC North title.
The Packers’ two young, high draft picks at cornerback appear to be having a crisis of confidence.
Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, the Packers’ first- and second-round picks in 2015, have been giving up a lot more than they’ve been taking away the last couple of weeks
Their groin injuries likely have played a role — Randall came out briefly against the Vikings in the second half and had trainers stretching his legs on the sidelines before he returned; he more recently has had a shoulder injury also. But they’re also not playing like confident cornerbacks, and that contributed to Sam Bradford’s 382 yards passing Saturday.
In fact, undrafted LaDarius Gunter probably has been the best of the three this season despite his limitations as a straight-line runner. The Packers have to hope the elbow injury that knocked him out of Saturday’s game won’t sideline him this week.
On Adam Thielen’s 71-yard touchdown, for instance, Rollins got hung up on a double move and was beaten by nearly five yards even before he collided with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. And on a fade route to Thielen in the fourth quarter, Rollins had pretty good coverage but jumped too early, which allowed Thielen to make an easy 24-yard catch. Rollins just looks a little unsure of himself.
Randall, likewise, isn’t showing the swagger he had as a rookie. Early in the fourth quarter, he gave Cordarrelle Patterson a nine-yard cushion and bailed almost immediately after the snap, which made for a gimme 10-yard reception on an out pattern. Yes, the Packers were up 38-13, and you can’t give up a 75-yard touchdown behind you at that point. But he had a safety over the top, and the cushion and early bail were extreme.
With Sam Shields out for the season, the Packers need Randall and Rollins to recover quickly if they’re going to beat Detroit this week and have a chance to make a deep playoff run.
Coach Mike McCarthy is starting to open up the playbook with the package that includes using rookie tackle Jason Spriggs as an extra blocking tight end. Spriggs came in as an extra blocker four times Saturday, including on a play in the second quarter when Nelson ran a deep crossing route for a 33-yard catch. The run fake sucked up the linebackers, which opened a huge area over the middle for Nelson. Spriggs also gave defenses something to think about on another play when he went out for a short pass, though the call was a run to the other side.