Dougherty: Nelson, Cook hold Packers' keys
Here’s the conventional take on the affliction that wrecked the Green Bay Packers’ offense last season:
After Jordy Nelson’s knee injury, they had no deep threat at receiver, so defenses could bring up a safety to stop the run with impunity.
And that’s true. Defenses didn’t have to worry about the 2015 Packers beating them over the top; they brought up an extra defender, and that in fact helped shut down the run.
But that wasn’t all the extra defender in the box accomplished. It also, and maybe more importantly, helped limit one of quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ backbreaking talents – his ability to scramble and make plays.
The extra safety near the line of scrimmage helped hem Rodgers in the pocket. Defensive coordinators could blitz, command their rushers to hold their lanes, keep an extra cover man underneath for the shorter stuff and still not worry about giving up big plays.
“The (defense’s) ability to rush five defenders, set the edges, keep Aaron in the (pocket),” coach Mike McCarthy said Tuesday, “that definitely was the most that we’d seen of that scheme, last year.”
The cumulative effect was staggering. The Packers finished No. 26 in the NFL in passing yards, and Rodgers had the lowest passer rating (92.7) and yards per attempt (7.1) of his eight seasons as a starter.
In a prove-it league, the Packers will face the same predicament this year, and they can’t run their way out of it. Defenses will load the box until Rodgers and his receiving corps make them pay a terrible price for playing eight in the box. Until then, Rodgers will face the same contain-oriented five-man rushes, and occasional linebacker spies, that dogged him the final two-thirds of last season.
Enter Jordy Nelson and Jared Cook. Neither played for the Packers last season. Both have returned recently from injuries. And the Packers need both to change Rodgers' life this year.
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Of course, none of us knows how Nelson is going to play after missing last season because of a torn ACL and the first four weeks of training camp while recovering from a less severe injury to his other knee.
Nelson has been back for less than a week, so we still don’t have much to go on. He’s only done individual and group work, no 11-on-11 yet, so he hasn’t tried to make a play downfield or turn a hot read into a big gainer.
In his first week back there’s zero reason to think he’ll play Friday at San Francisco, when Rodgers will make his one and likely only appearance of the preseason. Ditto for next week’s preseason finale, because Rodgers probably won’t play, which means Nelson won’t either.
Nelson’s long layoff – he hasn’t played in a game since preseason week No. 2 a year ago Tuesday in Pittsburgh – also means he won’t be an every-down player even if he is on the field for the regular-season opener at Jacksonville. Reintegrating him into the offense will be gradual.
Yet he still bears much of the Packers’ hopes for this season, because Rodgers’ trusts him implicitly on every type of throw. That was evident to Rodgers in practice Tuesday during a one-on-one drill when Nelson caught a ball against No. 1 cornerback Sam Shields.
“I quipped to (quarterbacks coach) Alex (Van Pelt), I said, ‘I could throw that ball with my eyes closed,’ because I know exactly where he’s going to be,” Rodgers said. “That’s the beauty of us playing together for a long time.”
But for all that rests on Nelson’s return, Cook might end up being just as important because of his rare combination of size (6-feet-4½, 254 pounds) and speed. At age 29 he surely doesn’t run as fast as he did early in his career – his 40 time at the 2009 scouting combine was 4.50 seconds – but he has shown in his abbreviated time in camp he’s still a big, fast man who can stretch the middle of the field.
And stretching the field is a quality the Packers’ receiving corps still badly needs. The team was hoping third-year pro Jeff Janis (4.42-second 40) and fifth-round rookie Trevor Davis (4.42-second 40) might help threaten defenses deep this season, but as we near the end of camp, neither looks ready to break through.
After a promising offseason, Janis didn’t do a lot in camp before breaking his hand, an injury that is costing him valuable work in practice and will likely sideline him for the first several weeks of the season, if not more. He’ll face an uphill road to get into the receiving rotation upon his return.
Davis likewise has had an uneventful camp since the pads went on. So while you still can’t rule out either for helping to threaten defenses deep over the course of a long 16-game season, there are enough receivers ahead of them (Nelson, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery and Jared Abbrederis) that the odds don’t look good right now.
Cook, on the other hand, is shaping up as ready-made and a savvy free-agent signing by Ted Thompson, the general manager who famously disdains free agency. For starters, the chemistry between Cook and Rodgers in practice has been fine even though Cook missed most of the offseason and the first two weeks of camp while recovering from foot surgery.
And though Cook hasn’t matched the eye-opening performance in his first camp practice Aug. 9, he’s made his share of plays since then and hasn’t yet shown signs of the drop issues that dogged him in Tennessee and St. Louis.
“Jared’s a big target and can run,” McCarthy said. “I really like the path that he’s on. I’m really excited to see him play with Aaron this weekend in San Francisco.”
Last year at this time I thought the Packers had the makings of being a record-setting offense. They’d returned all their key players from a group that led the league in scoring in 2014. But Nelson hurt his knee, Eddie Lacy put on too much weight, and the whole thing flopped.
To get back among the elite, the Packers need Rodgers playing like an MVP who makes as many key throws outside the pocket as in. To do that, it really is this simple: He has to punish defenses for playing a safety in the box. Then everything changes.
It falls on Nelson and Cook to give him that chance.
“I think you’ll see teams playing us differently (than last year), yeah,” Rodgers said. “Maybe not to start, but after a few weeks you might see some changes.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.