Packers aren’t throwing the deep ball with Nelson out

Packers aren’t throwing the deep ball with Nelson out

From his south end zone perch high above Lambeau Field – and, for road games, from his living room sofa – Jordy Nelson sees the same thing you do when he watches the Green Bay Packers offense.

Or, more accurately, doesn’t see the same thing you don’t see: Deep, down-the-field passes.

Now, the Packers’ injured Pro Bowl receiver still feels good about what his buddy, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and the rest of the offense can accomplish without him, and he believes the deep ball will be back in fashion before season’s end – even if he won’t be on the receiving end of any.

But Nelson also understands why it’s an issue at the moment, and how much pressure it would alleviate if the Packers could get their downfield passing game going again.

“I think it’s nice [to have], just because whenever you can score on one 80-yard throw, it takes a lot of stress off your offense,” said Nelson, who is on season-ending injured reserve after he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during the Packers’ Aug. 23 preseason game at Pittsburgh. “We never walked out there onto the field [to start a drive] saying, ‘This is going to be our 80-yard throw. Ready, go!’ But I think it’s beneficial.”

Best in the business
Nelson would know. Last season, he had an NFL-best five touchdown receptions of 50 yards or more – although some of those were of the catch-and-run variety – and also had an NFL-best five receptions of 60 yards or more. Nelson also has four career touchdowns that covered 80 yards or more, tied for the most in Packers history.
So Nelson understands the boost such plays can give a team, and how demoralizing they can be for opponents. Nevertheless, as he’s watched the Packers’ first five games – he spends his game days either in a Lambeau Field suite with other injured players and practice-squadders or at home with wife Emily and the couple’s two kids during road games – Nelson hasn’t gotten any inkling that the offense was in peril or needed to dial up a deep ball to get themselves going.

“I mean, I’ve watched all the games, and there’s never been a point in a game where our offense hasn’t been in full control of everything,” Nelson said. “Even if it’s only a 10-point game.”

Perhaps not, but last season, big plays provided knockout blows – or ignited blowout victories – throughout the season. And while coach Mike McCarthy made a valid point last week about his guys knowing how to create big plays – “You don’t always have to throw the ball 55 yards in the air to get that done,” he said – the deep ball does alter how opponents defend you and deliver a variety of fringe benefits beyond a big chunk of yardage.

Going long
According to ESPN Stats & Information, through five games, Rodgers has yet to throw a single pass that has traveled 40 yards or more in the air and counted. He’s thrown four that have traveled 30 yards or more, and of those, Rodgers has completed two of them – a 34-yard completion to Jones in Chicago in the opener, and a 38-yard completion to Jones against San Francisco two weeks ago.
Any other deep passes Rodgers has thrown have come on free plays and have not been completed, although Jones and Ty Montgomery both drew big pass-interference penalties on such plays earlier this season.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rodgers threw six passes that carried 40 yards or more in the air last season, and he completed three of them – all for touchdowns. Since the start of the 2011 season, Rodgers has thrown 25 such passes, completing nine of them for 500 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception.

His most productive years on such throws were last season (3 of 6, 166 yards, three TDs) and 2011 (4 of 10, 218 yards, three TDs); his worst was 2012, against a steady diet of two-high safety defenses (1 of 7, 52 yards, no TDs, one INT).

As for balls that traveled 30 yards or more in the air, Rodgers has thrown 76 such passes since the start of 2011 (including the four this season) and completed 38 of them for 1,854 yards with 20 TDs and one INT.

Last season, the Packers had 15 pass plays that gained 40 yards or more – tied for second-most in the NFL, and since the start of the 2013 season, their 78 such plays rank third in the league.

For his career, Rodgers has thrown more touchdowns of 70 or more yards – 16 – than any other quarterback in NFL history. So far this season, Rodgers’ longest touchdown pass was the 65-yard touchdown Jones scored on Sunday against St. Louis – a catch-and-run on which Jones caught the ball at the St. Louis 47-yard line, meaning the ball only traveled 18 yards in the air from the line of scrimmage.

“We just haven’t had kind of the ‘Jordy package,'” Rodgers admitted last week. “We haven’t found a guy to do some of that stuff yet, but we’re making up for it by running the ball well. And, the offensive line’s been blocking really well. We’re just kind of doing things a little differently.”

After Sunday’s game, Rodgers suggested that wide receiver Davante Adams, who has been battling an ankle injury since Sept. 20 and could miss his third straight game Sunday against San Diego, could be the antidote for what ails the Packers’ downfield passing game.

“I think we’ve got that guy, but he’s been hurt the last couple weeks,” said Rodgers, who went on to call Adams “a Pro Bowl-caliber player” as well. “Without him and without Jordy, we need to find some other ways to attack the outside stuff and still be able to be effective inside.”

Added associate head coach/offense Tom Clements, who is calling the offensive plays this season: “I think Davante could [be a deep threat]. I saw that quote by Aaron. I think Davante can be an outstanding player. And when you don’t have available your guys who are outstanding players, it makes it that much harder. But you’ve got to find a way to get it done and be productive.”

Figuring it out
Another option would be second-year receiver Jeff Janis, who resembles Nelson physically (6-foot-3, 219 pounds) and has deep speed (his 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine two years ago was the fourth-fastest among receivers that year). But Janis has yet to earn Rodgers’ or the coaches’ trust, and consequently he’s played only 33 of the Packers’ 348 offensive plays so far this season.
When Nelson was asked if he thought Janis could give the offense what it lacks without him, he said Janis must show greater consistency in order to earn such an opportunity.

“It’s the fact of someone taking pride in their work and being consistent. That’s what it comes down to,” Nelson said. “The main thing I ever focused on was being the same guy every day. Whether it was the coaches or it was Aaron, whenever I go out there, whether it’s practice or a game, you know what to expect [from me]. And I think that’s where it comes from.

“[Janis] made some big plays in preseason and in practice, but it’s the consistency level, day-in and day-out. In the classroom, when you get asked a question, you have to be able to sit there and answer it – and it’s not just Jeff, it’s everybody – and answer it the way [Rodgers] wants it answered. So he knows you know what you’re doing. And it goes from there.”

Whoever it is, though, the Packers need someone to force defenses to at least respect the possibility of them going deep. The Rams certainly saw no need to; defensive coordinator Gregg Williams crowded the box with safety Mark Barron on nearly even snap, and running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks combined for just 44 yards on 18 carries.

Once upon a time, the Packers didn’t have a respectable enough running game to get opposing defensive coordinators, fearful of getting beaten deep, to come out of their two-shell schemes. Now, the opposite is true.

“[When] the opportunity presents itself, we’ve just got to make the most of it,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “We feel like we still have that guy. Obviously, it’s very difficult replacing a Jordy Nelson, a dynamic playmaker. But we feel like we still have guys that can get the job done. We don’t really control what the defense is trying to do to us, other than our tempo, our play style, our speed. They line up and choose to play a certain way and we have to execute against it.”