Look no further than last season. In the first eight games, the Green Bay Packers’ leading pass catchers were Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson (seven) in Week 1, James Jones (11) in Week 2, Nelson in Week 3, Jermichael Finley in Week 4, Cobb and Nelson (four) in Week 5, Jarrett Boykin (eight) in Week 6, Nelson (seven) in Week 7 and Andrew Quarless (five) in Week 8. In case you weren’t counting, that’s six players in eight games.
That stands in stark contrast to the start of this season. While it’s far too early to make too much out of any statistical trends, Nelson leads the NFL with 18 receptions. The next two players on the team ledger, Cobb (11) and Davante Adams (five), have combined for 16 receptions. Nelson also leads the league with 292 receiving yards. That’s 49 yards more than everyone else combined.
Nelson also tops the NFL with 30 targets — passes thrown his direction. That represents 40 percent of all of Rodgers’ passes and is more than the next three players (Cobb, 15; Adams, 7; Eddie Lacy, 6) combined. Compare that to last season, when Nelson ranked 23rd with 127 targeted passes, Jones was 52nd with 93 and Boykin tied for 70th with 83. Or 2012, when Cobb’s team-high 104 targets tied for 39th in the NFL. Or 2011, the ultimate spread-the-wealth season, with Greg Jennings tying for 41st in targets with 101, Nelson tying for 51st with 96 and Finley tying for 58th with 92.
With all of that for background, Nelson’s gaudy numbers are a big surprise. Right?
Well, maybe not.
There are circumstances at play.
The first has something to do with the opening matchups. Because the Seahawks wouldn’t move Richard Sherman to Nelson’s side – or the Packers wouldn’t move Nelson to Sherman’s side, depending on one’s perspective – it only made sense for Rodgers to throw the ball to Nelson, who was working against Byron Maxwell, rather than to Boykin or Quarless, who frequently were lined up against Sherman.
On Sunday, it wasn’t avoiding a premier cornerback. Instead, it was the Jets’ lack of any respectable cornerbacks. With the Jets stacking the box to take away the run but lacking a cornerback capable of even slowing down Nelson, Rodgers showed no mercy. He threw 16 passes to Nelson. Nelson hauled in nine of them for 209 yards and one touchdown.
“When a guy’s having a day like that, you might look for him a little bit more,” Rodgers said on his weekly radio show with ESPN Milwaukee’s Jason Wilde.
Based on the recent history laid out earlier, it’s certainly a new approach to the passing game, with Rodgers throwing 30 passes to Nelson in a span of two games.
“I would bet that hasn’t happened in a long time. We just don’t do that a lot,” Rodgers said. “That’s a lot of targets. We’ve spread the ball around pretty good over the years because that’s the way we run our offense. We throw to the open guy. We go through our progressions and a lot of guys have opportunities to be the No. 1 on various plays. But I think we’ve found ourselves targeting him more and realizing that there’s a lot of good things that happen when the ball’s thrown his way. I’m happy for him. I’m not surprised. The guy makes incredible plays every day in practice. He is constantly looking for ways to help out our offense, and he does the little things as well. He’s a great blocker, he’s a great route runner, he has great second and third reactions. Just going to keep trying to find ways to give him the football.”
The second factor is Green Bay’s unproven pass-catching corps. Heading into training camp, the Packers appeared to have a three-man passing attack of Nelson, Cobb and Boykin. Considering Boykin’s slow start and that receivers Davante Adams and Jeff Janis and tight end Richard Rodgers are rookies, it’s really become only a two-man passing attack of dependable playmakers. Rodgers has said a number of times that he won’t trust young players in games until they routinely do the right things at practice, so the rookies’ slow start is anything but unexpected.
“I think (the youth) does a little bit,” Rodgers said during his weekly media session at his locker on Wednesday, “but what can we do to be most successful on offense? I think it has to change week-to-week based on personnel and based on what’s working.”
While Adams has five catches (six targets, all last week) and Boykin has one catch (three targets), the tight ends have combined for four receptions – all by Quarless.
“I’m not too worried about that and I hope they aren’t, either,” Rodgers said of the tight ends. “This is a long season and guys will get different opportunities throughout the year. This last week and the second half of the Seattle game, our tight ends were not pass-receivers first. They were blockers first and, more specifically, pass-blockers. The last game-and-a-half, they’ve been doing a lot of pass-protection stuff and checkdowns. They haven’t been primary receivers on a lot of plays.”
Can the Lions slow down the Nelson Express? Their defensive backfield – a weakness to begin with – has been hit by injuries. Then again, with a strong defensive front, the Lions might have the luxury of putting two or three men on Nelson.
“You better know where he is,” Detroit coach Jim Caldwell said in a conference call. “He’s no different than a couple guys that we have on our team. I would assume that you better know where Calvin Johnson is, because without question he’s a great talent. So we know where he is and we’re certainly looking at all of our options.”
If the Lions – or any team – can take out Nelson through just sheer numbers, it will be up to the others to step up in the passing game. Cobb, clearly, is a proven commodity. Can Boykin or Adams or Richard Rodgers or Brandon Bostick be that much-needed complement?
“Jordy’s going to do what he does,” Adams said. “Jordy being that productive and doing what he’s been doing for years now is what frees up Randall and frees up me. We’re all tied in together, we all complement each other. It’s not going to put any pressure on anyone. If anything, it takes pressure off because now we can just go out there and ball. We don’t have to worry about being double-teamed because, you best believe, if they double-team somebody, then we’ve got too many weapons to allow that.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com, and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.