Jordy Nelson downplays acrobatic grab
GREEN BAY—The catch is downplayed by the receiver. Nothing to it, he says. Jordy Nelson doesn’t see what all the fuss is about.
At San Francisco, he planted his feet, leaned at a 60-degree angle and somehow hung onto Aaron Rodgers’ pass for 37 yards.
“It’s just reaction,” he said, clearly tired of talking about it. “It’s all it is. It’s a lot easier than what you’re trying to make it out to be right now.”
Right. That’s why so many other wide receivers are doing it.
“Not many people are probably put in that situation,” Nelson said. “All we do is run a route, react to the ball and try to catch it.”
Nearby, Jermichael Finley snickers. Nelson shrugs.
When he’s healthy, Jordy Nelson is making catches exactly like this one. The 28-year-old has mastered the art of the sideline catch. Few receivers own the boundary like him. Since 2010, Nelson has been an acrobatic Gumby. The trapeze acts are routine. In sync with Rodgers, Nelson usually knows when to run, come to a screeching halt and contort his body around for the catch.
The sideline is his friend. And at 6 feet, 3 inches, 217 pounds, Nelson boasts a rare—in the words of Rodgers—“halo” to catch the football.
“He’s a talented receiver,” Rodgers said. “When he’s healthy, you see a lot of the games like he had Sunday.”
So rewind the tape.
With 9 minutes and 37 seconds to go, Green Bay trailed San Francisco, 24-21. Originally, Nelson’s plan was to grill 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown with a double move, to beat him vertically. Speed is central to Nelson’s game. In 2011, he had a 50-plus yard reception in six games. Off the line, he gets from 0 to 60 at an IndyCar rate.
“You want to be as explosive as possible,” Nelson said. “We stress that all the time. Get separation.”
With the fear of the deep ball now omnipresent, he can sell it, stop on a dime and leave a defender lunging.
Working against Brown—both players exchanging friendly hand checks for 15-20 yards—Nelson heard a strange sound. The crowd. He knew Rodgers was scrambling without seeing Rodgers scramble. Nelson can never afford to glance back, to sneak a peek at the chaos behind him. But over the years, eyes forward, Nelson has learned to use all five senses.
When the decibel level rose on this first-and-10 play, Nelson knew what was up.
“The crowd can tell you a lot of things, especially when the quarterback’s running,” Nelson said. “You just have a feel for it.”
He cut his route short. He turned to the sideline. And before the ball arrived, Nelson planted his feet inbounds. Nelson never looks down to see if he’s in; there’s no time. Six years in, that’s his sixth sense. Run your route right every time and you should be inbounds every time, he says.
Establishing position inbounds, he plants, leans and, well, if can reach it, he can reach it.
“That way I know my feet are in, instead of just trying to catch the ball and then getting my feet in,” Nelson said. “I get my feet in first and then just fall.”
There’s absolutely no flexibility involved, Nelson says. He’s “as inflexible as all get out.” Length, however, does help. The taller you are, the farther you can reach, so Nelson’s quarterback plays to this. No, Aaron Rodgers doesn’t force throws into double coverage, doesn’t test a receiver’s catching radius like, say, Matthew Stafford with Calvin Johnson in Detroit.
But when Nelson is split wide, the playbook opens up. Against two-deep looks—corners in aggressive man underneath with safety help waiting—the sideline passing window closes to a sliver.
“He has a big margin for error area,” Rodgers said. “I didn’t throw that ball precisely where I wanted it. He made it look good in the stat sheet. He’s got a large halo area where you can throw it and you’ve got a good chance that he’s going to catch it. And that gives you a lot of confidence as a quarterback.”
At the top of his head, Rodgers cites several examples.
The 27-yarder at New York two years ago. On a high throw along the left sideline, Nelson leapt, twisted his body nearly 360 degrees and dotted both toes down for the catch. Rodgers threw outside—safely to Nelson’s back shoulder—and the receiver’s torque set up a game-winning field goal.
The 10-yard touchdown on a Rodgers’ bullet at Atlanta three years ago. On a fourth-and-goal score with 55 seconds left, Nelson hung on.
The sideline catch is a daily emphasis for all of Green Bay’s receivers. They have a drill specifically for it.
“So if you see him do it in practice—if you practice a certain way—it’s just instincts in the game that naturally take over,” wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. “He puts a lot of time into it, his preparation. That’s a big part of it, when you can play with that type of confidence and that type of feel for the game.
“There’s no surprises, there’s no surprises there.”
Added teammate Jeremy Ross, “It can be a difficult catch to some. To some, it’s second nature, it’s ‘this is what I do.’”
Count Nelson as part of the second group.
Asked how many receivers make the 37-yarder at San Francisco, Rodgers only said, “Not many.”
This, coincidently, after missing nearly all of training camp. There were very legitimate concerns about Nelson’s chemistry with Rodgers heading into the regular season. They practiced only two weeks together before San Francisco and never in a game. Through that month in shorts, though, Nelson said he stayed in daily communication with Rodgers.
They continued the conversation. They talked about specific coverages, specific routes so he wouldn’t miss a beat.
“He’s always in the right spot at the right time,” Rodgers said. “He understands the timing of our offense. He’s extremely gifted route-running and body control. You put all that together and you’re not going to miss too many beats.”
The result, apparently, is more twisting, Leaning Tower of Pisa catches along the sideline.