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Green Bay WR Nelson separates himself from pack
With two-time Pro Bowl receiver Greg Jennings sidelined with a left knee sprain, Nelson was peppered with questions about his readiness to stand in as Aaron Rodgers'’ No. 1 target. Nelson, however, responded with just two catches for 29 yards in a 19-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I want to be able to step up and perform for the team, which we obviously didn’t against the Chiefs,” Nelson told Yahoo! Sports. “But you want to fill in and do what you can to help.”
Or take matters into his own, massive hands.
In the final two regular-season games, with Jennings still sidelined, Nelson hauled in 15 catches for 277 yards with five touchdowns. That capped a 68-catch, 1,263-yard season with 15 touchdowns, the third-most in a single season in team history.
“He gets overlooked, and he doesn’t get enough credit for what he does,” Chicago Bears Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman said. “He and the rest of his receiving corps are the best in the National Football League.”
A second-round pick in 2008, Nelson combined for 1,268 yards and six touchdowns in his first three seasons. He made his mark, though, in Super Bowl XLV last year after veteran Donald Driver was sidelined with a high ankle sprain. With the Pittsburgh Steelers focused on Jennings, Nelson abused the single coverage with nine catches for 140 yards and one touchdown.
“He catches everything. You saw that in the Super Bowl last year,” Tillman said. “The Steelers were under the impression that the go-to guy was Jennings. But here you got Jordy Nelson killing them.”
Jordy Nelson grew up in Manhattan – except his hometown was nicknamed “The Little Apple” and is most famous as the home of Kansas State University.
[ Related: Family business helps turn Jordy Nelson into a star ]
Although a standout quarterback at Riley County High, Nelson was in the shadow of his older brother, Mike, who was an all-state basketball and football player. Nelson eventually walked on at Kansas State, and Wildcats coach Bill Snyder moved him from defensive back to receiver, where he steadily developed into a consistent threat.
After the Packers drafted him, though, Nelson recognized how raw he was, given his background as a quarterback. Buried on the depth chart, his focus was simple.
“A lot of it was not screwing up,” Nelson said of his mentality.
Jennings said he didn’t notice anything special right away.
“He had only played a couple years at receiver so there were definitely things he needed to work on,” Jennings said Monday. “But you could see the potential and promise.
“That happens with a lot of young receivers.”
The key, Jennings said, is the willingness of those players to commit to the details and continue to hone their craft. For instance, Nelson had to master the playbook, understand his assignments and recognize what the opposition was doing.
As a rookie, Nelson was intimidated by Rodgers, leery of asking the quarterback questions. But the young receiver soaked in as much as possible, even doing amateur spy work once in a while.
“I eavesdrop in a lot of his conversations,” Nelson said. “If you can have that thought process and think the same way, then that chemistry grows and you’ll be on the same page.”
Besides, at different times, Nelson was the emergency third quarterback in Green Bay, so he had to be somewhat mindful of how to play his old position. But that quarterback mindset served him well, and he learned the demands of each receiver position and what Rodgers is looking for.
Nelson, though, had to be patient, given the players ahead of him at the receiver position.
“Obviously, it’s hard to make plays on the sideline,” Nelson said. “But you make a few plays, then you get a few more plays.
“It was just a matter of time.”
That depth, Tillman said, is what makes the Packers so maddening to defend.
“With that team, you have to look at all their receivers,” Tillman said. “Take Jennings out of the game, and you have to pick your poison. It’s not one or two [receivers]. It’s five.
“And Aaron does a great job of distributing the ball to each of his receivers.”
[ Related: Aaron Rodgers and Graham Harrell join fraternity ]
For his part, Nelson insisted that he has no problem playing Robin to Jennings’ Batman.
“He definitely is,” Nelson said, when asked if Jennings is the primary focus of defenses. “There’s no question about that. He’s getting a lot of the double-teams, which is fine with me.
“I’ll stay on the back side and take the one-on-ones.”
Elephant in room Nelson hates talking about
Earlier in the season, Nelson created a stir by suggesting that he has thrived in part because of stereotypes other players have of white athletes. A couple of days later, Rodgers and Packers perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson. discussed on a radio show the perception that Nelson wasn’t fast because he’s a white receiver, a point Jennings – who, like Woodson, is black – reinforced.
“There’s some validity to that,” Jennings said. “But, for the most part, it is what it is. Guys have to respect him.”
Tillman chose not to take the bait, saying Nelson is faster than he looks because he’s a “long-strider.”
“The minute you do [overlook Nelson] is when he’s burning you for a touchdown and doing the Lambeau Leap,” Tillman said. “I don’t look at him different because he’s a white receiver.”
Nelson has since shied away from discussing the topic.
“It’s extremely awkward, and I hate to talk about it,” he said. “It got blown way out of proportion.
“I think early on, it might have been a factor. But by now, if guys aren’t doing their film study, then thank you.”
Nelson has admitted that his teammates at Kansas State poked fun at him, calling him, “The Great White Hope.”
“I was like, ‘Whatever,’ ” Nelson said. “It was all in fun.”
[ Yahoo! Sports Radio: Jordy Nelson on Packers’ playoff outlook]
The New York Giants, Green Bay’s opponent in Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game, will surely be ready for Nelson. At MetLife Stadium last month, the Giants were trying to close out a win over the Packers. But Rodgers engineered a late drive that included a 24-yarder to Nelson on the left sideline to get the Packers in range for Mason Crosby’s winning field goal.
“I think he’s an excellent player,” Giants cornerback Will Blackmon said of Nelson. “Initially, it was Driver, then Jennings came along. But depending on the week, everybody gets their time to do something.
“People realize now, ‘Shoot, they got Jordy as well.’ They got guys who keep stepping up.”
In October, the Packers signed Nelson to a three-year contract extension worth $13.35 million, a bargain considering Bears slot receiver Earl Bennett – who’s scored 15 fewer receiving touchdowns in four seasons – signed a four-year, $18 million extension in early December.
But Nelson embraces the Packer culture, in which players keep one another’s egos in check.
“The thing about it is, we beat each other down enough, that you can’t get a big head,” Nelson said. “If we think you’re getting a big head, we’ll deflate it in a heartbeat.
“It keeps everyone humble and focused. Run a bad route, and we’re laughing at you.”
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