Dougherty: Nelson a new slot machine
The scary Green Bay Packers’ offense is back.
It had been absent a while, going back to last season and really through 10 games this year. But during their current five-game winning streak, the Packers’ vibe is by the week feeling more and more like 2011 and 2014.
If you don’t remember, they led the NFL in scoring both those years.
They’re back because they have Aaron Rodgers playing like an MVP again. Watching him torch the Minnesota Vikings 38-25 on Saturday, it was hard to imagine anyone in the NFL playing better over the past month.
DOUGHERTY: Nelson a new slot machine
D'AMATO: McCarthy's steady hand a winner
INSIDER: Thumbs up to Rodgers
BOX SCORE: Packers 38, Vikings 25
So now they're the league’s hottest team and headed to Detroit to play for the NFC North title next week, and they're here because of three key developments: turning Ty Montgomery into a full-time running back; tight end Jared Cook’s return from injury and playing Jordy Nelson more as a slot receiver.
Montgomery was the key, because his ability to run like a real running back opened up everything. On a lot of downs, it’s like the Packers have six skill players on the field. Defenses have to cover five receivers and deal with a real runner at the same time, because Montgomery is both. That’s a big problem.
Cook’s return from an ankle injury then has added a big, athletic target this offense has missed for a few years.
And Saturday, we saw more than ever what a devastating weapon Nelson has become working much of the time from the slot instead of his former role as mainly an outside receiver. He and Rodgers dominated this game. How’s this for a stat? When Rodgers targeted Nelson on Saturday, he had the maximum 158.3 passer rating (9-for-11 for 154 yards and two touchdowns).
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Randall Cobb didn’t play because of an ankle injury, but did you even notice? Davante Adams (four catches for 44 yards) and undrafted rookie Geronimo Allison (four catches for 66 yards) aren’t the fastest guys in the world, but they’re good-sized targets on the outside. Rodgers and Nelson did the rest.
In just a few weeks, this offense has evolved from dink and dunk to eating up nice chunks of mid-range yardage. And the 6-foot-3 Nelson lining up in slot-type positions and roaming the middle of the field has been a crucial figure. With all that field to work with, his chemistry with Rodgers, especially when plays break down, is, well, exceptional. Probably better even than what Brett Favre had with his best receivers a generation ago.
“Anytime (Nelson) is in the middle, he presents a big target,” Rodgers said, “and he’s just got such a great feel for zone coverages.”
Said coach Mike McCarthy: “(Rodgers) releases the ball much earlier to Jordy, and that in itself speaks volumes of their relationship as far as the number of reps, the trust, the timing and so forth.”
This has implications for the rest of the season and beyond. Nelson didn’t play strictly from the slot Saturday, but post-ACL that’s become his best position. Going forward, that has to be where he lines up more often than not, right?
Cobb is a good, tough player, and presumably will be back from his injury next week at Detroit. There’s always a way to get good players on the field, so Cobb will have some kind of role for the rest of this season, however long the season lasts.
But Cobb is scheduled to make $9.5 million in salary and bonuses next year. He’s strictly a slot receiver, and a smallish one (5-10 ¼) at that. There’s no way the Packers can pay him that salary in 2017 with Nelson proving to be a game changer at his position, plus Adams, Allison, Trevor Davis, a possible draft pick and even Jeff Janis to man the outside. Absent a big pay cut, it’s getting tougher and tougher to see why the Packers would bring Cobb back next year. You can't pay everybody, and there are only so many snaps to go around. But that’s a decision for the offseason.
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Because these Packers still might have a lot of football to play. With a win at Detroit they’ll win the division and host a playoff game. And with the way this offense is humming, who knows what might happen?
In two of the last three weeks they’ve put up 38 points against scoring defenses that going into the weekend ranked No. 2 (Seattle) and No. 6 (Minnesota) in the league. Sure, the Vikings are collapsing, and one of their most important players, safety Harrison Smith, played on a bum ankle Saturday. But they still have a lot of talent on that side of the ball and one of the game’s best defensive coaches in Mike Zimmer. So 38 points is 38 points.
So much of it comes down to Rodgers. McCarthy always says his offense is built around making his quarterback successful, and after about a year of up-and-down results in that regard, the coach has found an attack that’s has his quarterback peaking in this season’s stretch drive.
The Packers have to feel especially good that Rodgers looked remarkably close to full strength as a scrambler only two weeks after injuring his right calf against the Seahawks. He was much more mobile than last week at Chicago.
And then there was the way he threw darts all over the field Saturday, some from the pocket, others on the move. After the game, he described what he felt like, and it was the textbook definition of a player in “The Zone.”
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“From the first throw today, I was in a different head space,” Rodgers said. “I just felt that I was, for whatever reason, at a heightened awareness and focus and I was seeing things better. I was playing slower in my mind from the start. A good place to be at. You wish you could harness that every single game.”
He’s kind of been there for a few weeks now. That has to scare the rest of the NFL.