Packers WR Jordy Nelson dazzles with acrobatic sideline grabs
By Weston Hodkiewicz, Green Bay Press-Gazette
~GREEN BAY – Davon House and the rest of the Green Bay Packers’ defensive backs have come to expect these kind of catches from Jordy Nelson.
Back turned at the point of release, the 6-foot-3 receiver whips around at the exact moment Aaron Rodgers drives another long-distance football into his neighborhood along the sideline.
Ball positioned perfectly, the opposing defensive back in coverage can only hope Nelson either drops the ball or his toes don’t find the grass before gliding out of bounds to secure possession.
Rarely when a back-shoulder throw comes Nelson’s way does either scenario play out. One month into his sixth NFL season, Nelson’s hands have been a mousetrap on passes along the sidelines. His self-awareness is nothing short of special.
“Every time they throw it up, it’s going to be a catch,” House said. “It’s really the quarterbacks that make that throw, but Jordy is big enough and long enough that makes it even easier because he can outstretch the defender.”
In most cases, the average NFL quarterback probably doesn’t get the ball to where Nelson is breaking on those routes. Even if he succeeds, there’s no guarantee the average receiver catches it.
That’s one reason the Packers’ secondary sees the back-shoulder pass so infrequently. By House’s estimation, there’s only a select few — Rodgers, Tom Brady and even Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco — who can put the ball where it needs to be consistently in that situation.
In Green Bay, however, Rodgers and his receivers have found symmetry in performing the surreal. On three plays during Sunday’s 22-9 win over the Detroit Lions, Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones each took their turn in the spotlight.
Cobb started with a leaping one-handed catch for 22 yards on a third-and-6 pass in the first quarter. After halftime, Jones beat his man in single coverage for an 83-yard touchdown off a go route to extend the lead to 16-3.
Finally, Nelson continued his high-wire act on a 31-yard pass from Rodgers along the sideline in the fourth quarter. How he managed to tip-toe the chalk as his body angled toward the ground, Nelson can’t explain it.
The Packers can. This is the same multifaceted receiver the organization saw on film when they drafted Nelson in the second round of the 2008 NFL draft, and the ability to harness that potential is what has separated him since signing a three-year extension in 2011.
“Obviously we can practice it to an extent, but every ball, we’re never going to get the same pass two times in a row,” Cobb said. “It may be a sideline catch where it’s high or one where it’s low. You never know exactly where it’s going to be, so it goes more with instinct and knowing where you are on the field and he does a great job at it.”
Nelson’s reaction to most catches oozes indifference. If you didn’t witness his 31-yarder against the Lions firsthand, his body language afterward would’ve suggested the play being nothing more than a business-as-usual quick hitch for a few yards.
That’s just Nelson’s unassuming style. He remained low-key during his breakthrough 2011 season when he had 68 catches for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns and kept the same approach during an injury-riddled 2012 campaign.
The sideline antics were prevalent in both. He gained national attention for a 21-yard catch along the sideline against the New York Giants in 2011 and did it again during last month’s regular-season opener against San Francisco.
In both instances, the opposing cornerbacks — New York’s Will Blackmon and San Francisco’s Tarell Brown — tried unsuccessfully to signal an incompletion to the sideline referee, but both of Nelson’s feet were clearly inbounds.
“He’s probably had more of those types of catches this year, for whatever reason, but he’s made them in the past,” Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “I can remember a couple years ago against the Giants right at the end of regulation, he caught one on the sideline that was a great catch. … It’s shown up more this year, for whatever reason, but he’s always had the ability.”
Packers receivers coach Edgar Bennett said the receivers routinely practice toe-tapping drills to cultivate sideline awareness, but there’s also an instinctive element that you can’t coach — both on the quarterback and receiver’s behalf.
Bennett often speaks about his players “making the most of their opportunities.” Four games in, there’s not much to argue with. Nelson (projected to 1,484 yards), Jones (1,356) and Cobb (1,300) are all well on their way to living up to Jones’ preseason prediction of having three 1,000-yard receivers.
The sample size requires more data, but Rodgers is also on pace for the first 5,000-passing-yard season in Packers history with Nelson’s trapeze act on the sideline serving as an entree for the NFL’s fourth-ranked passing offense (312.2 yards per game).
“You have to give credit to Jordy Nelson on those particular plays, but the other part of it is the guy throwing the ball,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Aaron has great trust that Jordy’s going to go get those throws. Obviously when you’re throwing them, at times it could be an extended play, and Aaron’s throwing from a different body position. Jordy just has great body control and has very good hands to know exactly where he is.”
The Packers still have holes to fix, including a red-zone offense that needs refinement, but the contrasting skill sets of their three receivers and tight end Jermichael Finley have been a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.
For Nelson, the key to making his toe-tapping catch happen is catching the ball. After dropping eight of 57 catchable balls in 2012 (14 percent), he’s dropped only one of his 30 targets for a drop rate of 4.17 percent, according to Pro Football Focus.
The sideline heroics? Nelson doesn’t read a lot into them. Regardless of where he is on the field or how the ball is delivered, the goal is always to catch what’s being thrown his way.
So far, that hasn’t been a problem.
“You don’t want to be on the sideline, you want to be away from the sideline. But just try to make the most of your opportunities I guess,” Nelson said. “I think it’s a little awkward that so many of them came up, but just trying to catch the ball, make sure you get your feet in.
“They just happen, I guess.”
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