Return of the Jordy Nelson

Last season proved how vital a game changing receiver like Jordy Nelson was to the Green Bay Packers offense. Justin Twell shows how the return of Nelson makes the Packers passing attack one of the best in the league. 

The Green Bay Packers passing game, along with the offense as a whole, was not the same in 2015. The biggest contributing factor to their offensive struggles was the absence of top wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who tore his ACL in his right knee in a preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Losing someone as good as Jordy Nelson was inevitably going to be a big loss. The Packers’ deep passing game was almost non-existent in 2015, with quarterback Aaron Rodgers registering his lowest yards-per-attempt average since becoming the starter (6.7) in 2008. Nelson had seven touchdowns of 20 yards or more in 2014. Rodgers threw for only five total in all of 2015.

But now, Nelson was recently removed from the PUP list, and while he has yet to play this year and only just returned to 11-on-11 practice drills last week, reports suggest he’s looked good thus far and looks like “the Jordy we all know.

So what can we expect from the Packers passing game in 2016 now that Jordy Nelson is set to return?

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Deep Passing Game

Let’s first examine Nelson’s impact on the deep passing game in 2014.

When you watch Jordy Nelson, his route running is incredibly precise on deep routes; it appears almost effortless for him. This is key when you have a quarterback in Aaron Rodgers who frequently throws anticipation routes.

Nelson shows great timing when changing direction and cutting infield, particularly on post routes, forcing defensive backs to adjust quickly. This is where Nelson gives defensive backs problems, as he never breaks stride.

In Week 14 against the Atlanta Falcons in 2014, Nelson is lined up to the right of the formation in a two wide receiver set. As the ball is snapped, Nelson runs a vertical route down the seam through the Falcons’ zone coverage and, as he approaches the deep safety, breaks toward the sideline, and then suddenly cuts to the middle of the field, turning the safety around and giving him no chance to make any sort of play and it’s an easy touchdown for Nelson.

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We see the same thing here in Week 5 against the Minnesota Vikings with Nelson lined up to the right of the formation. The outcome is exactly the same.

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Nelson can also work the sidelines extremely well on deep routes. Here against the Carolina Panthers in Week 7 we can see how he can fight off tight man coverage at the line of scrimmage to create separation and go deep once again.

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No other receiver on the Packers is as in-sync with quarterback Aaron Rodgers as Nelson. Will this almost telepathic relationship between receiver and quarterback return in 2016? I believe it will. Head coach Mike McCarthy will be returning to play-calling duties this year, so expect Rodgers to know where Nelson is going to be.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Red Zone Efficiency and Production

It should come as no surprise that Nelson has been heavily targeted in the red zone in this offense; 48 times in 2014. If this stat were for 2015, he’d have been the second most targeted wide receiver in the NFL in the red zone, only behind the New York JetsEric Decker (51 targets).

Being a precise route runner gives Nelson an advantage in red zone situations where he has less space to work with. His ability to use his hands to fight off tight man coverage at the line of scrimmage instantly gives him the upper hand. If, however, defensive backs play too far off, then Nelson can use speed and timing to beat you.

In Week 6 against the Miami Dolphins, the Packers run this play completely toward Jordy Nelson’s side of the field. It begins with a play-action fake which freezes the two defensive backs, giving Nelson the opportunity to hit stride and split them for the easy touchdown.

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This next play against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 14 is a great example of Nelson’s ability to run a precise route deep in the red zone. As Rodgers is flushed from the pocket, Nelson is able to cut back towards the corner of the end zone for a touchdown.

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Nelson’s best year as a pro was in 2014, when he showed complete command of his position. It is hard to believe that some underappreciate Nelson but, whether it be against man or zone coverage, he has shown that he’s just about unstoppable. His absence was obvious in 2015, as the Packers routinely struggled to move the ball downfield and their deep passing disappeared against savvier defenses.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]So Just How Much Was Nelson Missed in 2015?

Shortly after Nelson was ruled out for 2015, the Packers bought back wide receiver James Jones in the hope he could replace some of Nelson’s production; a move that perhaps made sense at the time given his familiarity with the offense, and in the first 6 games of the season he hauled in six touchdowns.

However, as the Packers’ season began to slide, so did Jones’ touchdown numbers – he registered only two for the rest of the season..

Defenses adjusted to the absence of Nelson in 2015 when facing the Packers. In 2014 – as you can see from the clips above – defenses played with a lot of 2 deep safety looks to try to take away Nelson’s deep threat ability.

In 2015, defenses were able to play more Cover 1 with the free safety lining up deep while the strong safety was able to line up closer to the line of scrimmage. This allowed defenses to better cover short routes with linebackers and a strong safety. And without Nelson, the Packers had no real deep threat so cornerbacks could play tight man coverage to disrupt the receivers’ routes off the line of scrimmage without the threat of getting beat over the top.

An example of this we see here in Week 15 against the Oakland Raiders. Notice both James Jones and Randall Cobb are lined up against tight man coverage with the free safety deep in the middle of the field. This play yields only a seven yard gain

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Another example comes in Week 13 as the Detroit Lions also line up in Cover 1 with tight man coverage, forcing only an eight yard gain on the play.

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But it wasn’t all doom and gloom without Nelson in 2015, as the Packers receivers were able to take advantage of zone coverage looks at times. A good example can be found by going back to Week 15 against the Oakland Raiders on this 30 yard touchdown pass to James Jones.

The Raiders are lined up in Cover 1, and the cornerback covering Jones playing zone instead of man coverage, allowing Jones to get behind him for the easy score. With two other receivers also getting open on the play, the free safety has to decide who to cover and isn’t able to get across the field in time to prevent the touchdown.

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It was no real secret that the Packers were going to miss Jordy Nelson in 2015. And they did, with the offense going from 1st in scoring in 2014 to 15th in 2015.

So, with the 2016 season about to kick-off, we can expect the Packers’ offense to be it’s usual self with Nelson back on the field. Defenses will once again have to account for the deep ball, and with Nelson back it allows Randall Cobb to play more in the slot, where the Packers can move him around to find favourable matchups and work underneath where he is at his best.

The Packers offense will generate more big plays because of Nelson and we can expect them to once again be a top 5 offense in 2016, with Nelson being the catalyst in the passing game.

Follow Justin on Twitter @JustinTwell78. Check out his work here, including on how the Detroit Lions will fare without Megatron, the elite Minnesota Vikings’ linebacker corps, the potential for a breakout season from the Chicago Bears’ Eddie Goldman, and on watching college football another continent.

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All film courtesy of NFL GamePass.

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