Nelson comes up big for Rodgers, Pack
Redemption and resilience were the hallmarks of the Green Bay Packers this season, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the team’s No. 4 wide receiver — a third-year guy relegated to return duties last September — emerged as the No. 1 target for Most Valuable Player Aaron Rodgers in Sunday’s 31-25 Super Bowl XLV victory over Pittsburgh at Cowboys Stadium.
With veteran Donald Driver sidelined by a left-ankle injury in the second quarter, Jordy Nelson stepped in with a career-high nine catches for 140 yards. Perhaps the biggest was a 29-yard touchdown against William Gay in single coverage that put Green Bay ahead 7-0 with 3:44 remaining in the first quarter.
The Rodgers-to-Nelson pipeline grew so consistent, it wiped away the memory, and impact, of Nelson’s three very conspicuous dropped balls.
“That’s just what you have to do. If you play the game long enough at this position, you’re going to drop the ball. And you’ve got to move on,” said Nelson, who held his 1-year-old son Royal in his arms and winced every time he shuffled in his seat.
What was hurting? “Everything,” he said. “But it’s OK. We won the Super Bowl.”
Green Bay accomplished that by throwing 39 times in 55 offensive plays; running back James Starks was an afterthought with 11 carries for 52 yards. Rodgers completed 24 of 39 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns, finding fifth-year receiver Greg Jennings twice on scoring strikes of 21 and 8 yards.
Why did the Packers pass so much, even in short-yardage situations?
Pittsburgh’s top-ranked rushing defense forced the ball into the air, and Green Bay’s vast network of receivers was dispatched along the sidelines to take advantage of their speed in the flat against the linebackers dropping back in coverage.
Rodgers immediately went after Gay and Bryant McFadden, the Steelers’ cornerbacks, and the Nelson-Gay matchup soon became a go-to for Rodgers — Nelson was targeted a team-high 15 times.
“That’s where we thought we had the matchups,” Nelson said of the aerial assault. “Pittsburgh has a great defense. Their front seven is hard to get anything on. I mean, it’s tough to put Aaron back there as well and have him just throw like that — they have a great pass rush and run defense.
“I think we had our matchups on the outside, and that’s just how the game went.”
Rodgers saw this Super Bowl XLV victory as a microcosm of the Packers’ season. As players fell to the wayside because of injury, including standouts such as running back Ryan Grant and tight end Jermichael Finley, others stepped in and made immediate contributions.
When there was poor play, Green Bay always managed to bounce back. It took five consecutive victories to get the Packers to this matchup against the more experienced Steelers.
“That is just like our season. A lot of adversity,” Rodgers said of the Packers’ ability to hold on despite squandering most of a 21-3 advantage and seeing it cut to 21-17 with 10:19 left in the third on Rashard Mendenhall’s 8-yard touchdown run.
Green Bay also overcame losing Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson to a broken collarbone in the second quarter, and a brief disappearance by cornerback Sam Shields, who was dinged with a shoulder injury.
“Guys stepped up, you know?” Rodgers said. “Sam was down. Charles was down. Donald (Driver) was down.
“Jordy Nelson? Huge game; . . . that’s the story of our season. A lot of high-character guys who’ve stepped up, played huge roles for us, and now we’re sitting here as Super Bowl champs.”
The opening touchdown, Nelson said, was a simple screen. The Steelers’ bump-and-run style hurt them on this play, as Gay bumped Nelson and Rodgers gave his receiver a signal that he was the hot read on the play.
“I had the same route, but it was more of a signal that ‘I’m going to alert you — if you beat him, I’m going to throw it to you,’ ” Nelson recalled. “I ran the route that way and he put the ball up and we connected.”
Nelson’s ability to shed defensive backs comes from first-hand knowledge: A former walk-on as a safety as Kansas State, he converted to receiver and developed into an All-American wideout, good enough to be drafted by Green Bay in the second round in 2008.
Subbing more frequently for Driver, Nelson emerged as a solid outlet receiver for Rodgers, the clutch check-down read when all else failed. His 45 catches for 582 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season, for a team that averaged 358 yards per game, weren’t especially flashy.
“I did what I was asked to do,” Nelson said simply.
On Super Sunday? Nelson’s numbers were huge. They were brilliant. And they were very necessary.