Could Packers Offense Survive Without Nelson?

Though it’s been just three games, wide receiver Jordy Nelson looks more valuable than ever to the Packers’ passing game.

The Green Bay Packers found out last season that life can be pretty difficult without an elite quarterback at the helm.

While there were certainly some entertaining games with Aaron Rodgers sidelined, the end result was most telling. The Packers went just 2-5-1 with the trio of Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn taking shots at quarterback. That record was sixth-worst in the league from Weeks 9-16 as opposed to the 6-2 mark (tied for ninth best) with Rodgers playing Weeks 1-8 and Week 17.

This real example would seem to back up analytics Packer Report laid out during training camp in 2013 that suggested Rodgers was more valuable than any quarterback in the league based on a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) model and point production using statistics from 2010-2012.

Finding how valuable a receiver is to a team is much more difficult since other dependant variables are involved. But if Jordy Nelson were to go down for any extended time this season, would the Packers offense be in deep trouble? Even with a healthy Rodgers?

The biggest statement the Packers made on Nelson’s worth this year came on the first day of training camp, when it was announced that Nelson extended his contract for four years and just over $39 million. At $9.7 million per season, his deal ranks eighth among receivers in the league, more than ex-teammates Greg Jennings (Minnesota Vikings) and almost triple that of James Jones (Oakland Raiders).

Last week, the Packers’ reliance on Nelson in the passing game was a big topic. He leads all NFL receivers with 37 targets, the same amount as Randall Cobb, Jarrett Boykin, and Davante Adams combined. Had it not been for a career performance in a Week 2 comeback win against the New York Jets — Nelson had nine catches for 209 yards and 80-yard touchdown — the Packers might be 0-3.

The Detroit Lions said last Sunday their goal was to take away Nelson and they did a decent job of it (Nelson had five catches for 59 yards in seven targets). The Packers scored just seven points, the fewest in a game Rodgers has started and finished, and Rodgers passed for just 162 yards against an injury-depleted secondary.

A week prior, the Jets worked more man coverage against Nelson and were burned. And the Seattle Seahawks — with the Packers staying away from cornerback Richard Sherman’s side — rolled a safety to Nelson’s side limiting him to 9.2 yards per catch on nine catches in the season opener.

“Really, the way the ball is distributed, you have to look at the defense is part of that,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. “We don’t line up and throw it to a guy. We may feature players in certain concepts based on what we think the coverage is going to be. You always like to see the ball; you like to see everybody touch the ball. But at the end of the day, it’s about production and that’s what we’re working to improve.”

In recent years, the Packers have always had a counterpunch on offense in the passing game. Jermichael Finley. Jones. Jennings. Donald Driver. Thus far this season, that counter is much less clear.

Perhaps Eddie Lacy will get the running game going soon. Or Boykin or Cobb will awake from a slumber. Or maybe rookie Davante Adams will emerge or one of the tight ends as a vertical threat down the middle to split the two-high safeties that seem to handcuff Rodgers at times.

Rodgers has worked wonders with much less. The best example came last year in a game at Minnesota, when Rodgers laid waste to the Vikings with three of his top four weapons out (Finley, Cobb and Jones). Turning instead to backups Boykin, Andrew Quarless, and practice-squad player Myles White, Rodgers put together his second-best passing game of the season (24-of-29, 285 yards, two TD’s, 130.6 passer rating). The Packers won, 44-31.

Of course, the Vikings were struggling at the time; their defense one of the worst in the league. And the Packers had Nelson available that game, moving him from his normal outside receiver position into the slot. He led the Packers with seven catches for 123 yards and two touchdowns.

More than Cobb, Finley, Jones, or even Jennings, Nelson’s most underrated factor has been his availability. In the past four full seasons, he has missed only four games (in 2012 because of a hamstring). Cobb has missed 12 in three years, Jones a respectable eight games in six seasons with Rodgers, and Jennings 11 in five years with Rodgers.

Rodgers has talked about his chemistry with Cobb, but the chemistry with Nelson has logged more hours than with any other passing target on the team. So, it should come as no surprise that early on Rodgers is going to his one dependable target, even with a bull’s-eye on its chest.

With such a big disparity between the No. 1 and No. 2 receivers on the team, assuming Cobb plays the slot, the Packers passing’ offense faces a big challenge.

“I think if (the defense is) drawing more attention to a certain guy then you’re going to have matchups somewhere else,” said Nelson. “We just need to find those holes where there’s weaknesses in the coverage or not as much help, and guys need to make the plays when they get the opportunity. It’s nothing different than any other game. There’s going to be one-on-one matchups and we need to make sure we win those.”


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