Jordy Nelson has been a boundary receiver since day one. He’s got the frame (6’3”, 217 lbs), the vertical leaping ability, and the speed. Well, had the vertical and speed. Since coming back from a torn ACL suffered in August of 2015, Nelson just hasn’t had the same explosiveness he once had. As such, many of his routes this year have been shorter and more predicated on timing and less about using his physical tools to get open and make catches. The decrease in athleticism combined with the emergence of Davante Adams as a legitimate boundary receiver has seen Nelson increasingly line up in different positions than years prior.
The week 14 tilt against the Seattle Seahawks saw Nelson haul in 6 catches on 7 targets for 41 yards and two touchdowns. But what his stat line doesn’t tell you is where those receptions came from, and who he was matched up against. Let’s take a look at a few of his receptions.
First Quarter, 14:54, 9 yard completion
As many astute football fans are aware, Seattle predominantly plays a cover 3 press defense. It’s a simple defense that I coach middle schoolers who are learning the sport for the first time. What many people may not know, is that this cover 3 isn’t always a 100% zone coverage; this play serves as a great example.
The defensive look at the start of the play is a traditional cover 3 look, with Kam Chancellor playing down in the box while the man responsible for filling Earl Thomas’s gigantic shoes, Steven Terrell, is the lone high safety. The defense doesn’t play a pure cover 3 zone, however; instead, a “rip” call is made (I use Red, but as long it’s an R, it means right) where now the furthest two right side defenders will play man coverage. Defender 1, DeShawn Shead covers Jared Cook while defender 2, K.J. Wright covers Ty Montgomery coming out of the backfield. The other half of the defense stays in a cover 3 zone scheme. This is a form of “pattern matching”. If you want to learn more about the pattern matching concept, I’d start here. It’s complicated and fun.
The weakness of this defense is twofold; if receivers were to run patterns to the areas vacated by the defenders playing man coverage, it would stretch the underneath defenders thin. It also is susceptible to overloading the underneath zones, especially on the outside. Seattle is a team of good tacklers, and the idea of a cover 3 is to keep everything in front of you.
Lining up in the slot at the top of the screen, Nelson runs a short hitch route. Rodgers could have fired one in to Nelson early as he had a yard on his defenders, but Rodgers felt as though they were too close. Watch Nelson at the top of your screen.
Since this was the first play of the game, it’s my opinion that Rodgers was looking for Adams on the deep route, but Terrell and Sherman had him well covered.
This wouldn’t be the last we saw of Nelson in the slot running a hitch route, however.
Second Quarter, 10:23, 7 yard completion
Seattle comes out in a cover 3 look again with Chancellor in the box, playing over Nelson, who is lined up in the slot, again to Roders’ right. This time Seattle plays the cover 3 true; each cornerback has a deep third zone with outside and over positioning.
Guess what route Nelson runs, again? A 3 yard hitch, this time underneath and between the coverages of Kam and K.J. where Jordy found plenty of space. This pass was going to Nelson all the way, and the ball was being delivered just as soon as he was turning his head.
What goes unnoticed is the look-off by Rodgers during his drop-back; it’s subtle, but it freezes Wright just enough to prevent him from sliding over to Nelson. Rodgers is the cool kid in class who stares you in your eyes as he tosses a ball of paper into a tiny trash can twenty feet away. He leaves you thinking, “does he practice this at home? Who practices throwing a ball of paper into a trash can while looking away?”. Look at where his head is pointed as Nelson runs his route:
Trash can buckets all day. These types of plays are vital to setting up the opportunity to run the ball near the goal line; had this fallen incomplete, there’s a near zero percent chance that McCarthy would have called any run plays for the remainder of the drive. As it stood, however, Ty Montgomery was able to punch it in from the one yard line.
Third Quarter, 4:24, 3 yard completion, TOUCHDOWN
This play has so much going on it’s almost comical, and it’s a tremendous playcall by Mike McCarthy.
First off: yes, Aaron Rodgers could have easily thrown to Davante in the endzone. The patterns against this defense were perfect, and it led to Adams being wide open in the middle of the field. I’ll show you how that happened.
The coverage, similar to the first play, is a mixed zone-man coverage. As Nelson comes across the formation, Kam Chancellor follows; this is an indicator that he is matched up with Nelson in man coverage. At the top of the screen, Richard Sherman and Jeremy Lane play a zone coverage; Sherman has the outside/over route, while Lane has the inside/under route.
To counteract the man coverage, on Nelson, Richard Rodgers and Jordy Nelson run a pick play, designed to have Rich-Rod run into Chancellor, freeing up Nelson in the back of the endzone. Unfortunately, Rodgers runs directly into Nelson, effectively ruining the route combination. Chancellor and the cornerback, DeShawn Shead, stay with their coverages easily and probably get in a laugh at how much of a doofus Richard Rodgers is.
On the opposite side is where things get complicatedly beautiful. The next picture may cause seizures, so if you’re pregnant or just scared of poorly drawn, confusing lines, don’t go any further.
Let’s start from left to right. The lone deep safety, Terrell, gets sucked over to the bottom of the screen as he watches Aaron Rodgers’ eyes, leaving space in the middle of the endzone.
John Kuhn Aaron Ripkowski is running a drag route, which grabs the attention of both Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, also leaving space open in the middle. Davante Adams runs a slant route designed specifically to fall behind the linebackers and in front of the safety. Jeremy Lane, playing his inside/underneath zone, is the one that this play puts the most pressure on. It’s his responsibility to cover Cobb or Adams if they run an underneath or inside route, but not get sucked in too far and give up a short completion to an out-breaking route. This is where Lane gets in trouble; he doesn’t recognize that Ripkowski has moved Wright off his spot and doesn’t follow Davante in nearly far enough, leaving Adams wide open inside. Credit should also be given to Randall Cobb, who sets a pick for Adams as he stutters his route while keeping his body between Lane and Adams.
Instead of continuing the route and running into a defender’s zone, Adams sits in the open area waving his hands, as he and everyone else in the stadium knows that he’s open for a touchdown. For whatever reason, Aaron doesn’t pull the trigger, and has to scramble around as we’ve seen him too all too often this season.
Now, for the finisher. It’s been said ad nauseam, but the connection between Rodgers and Nelson is strong. Who needs burst when you have telepathy? This is like making Dom Perignon out of cat pee!
Kam you believe it? Kam Chancellor never had a chance...ellor. Give him ten chance...ellors and he still wouldn’t be able to stop that. I bet he likes Monopoly because there’s chance...ellor cards. If you have any other chance or Kam puns, I’d love to hear them. Seriously.
Jokes aside, it has been relieving to see Nelson still active and impactful in the passing game after coming back from an ACL tear. His role may have changed, but his importance has not diminished. If he can continue to find holes in the underbelly of opposing defenses, the Green Bay offense should continue as one of the best in the league.
If there are other plays, players or schemes you would like to see covered by Bob in his film breakdowns, leave a comment below!