It’s taken place quietly, but this season has shown the NFL that there are few—if any—better quarterback/wide receiver combinations in the NFL than the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson.
That was on constant display Sunday night when the Packers—minus three key pieces in Jermichael Finley, Randall Cobb and James Jones—took the field and appeared to have not even missed a beat.
Yes, props need to go to Jarrett Boykin and Myles White, two players who were an afterthought going into the season and Eddie Lacy, who has given this team a legitimate ground game.
Still, it was Nelson who Rodgers looked too most in the game and Nelson who caught all but one pass thrown his way.
Rodgers knows where Nelson is, where he will be and that if he puts the ball anywhere near Nelson, the receiver will catch it. We saw it all day Sunday, just as we have all season.
Nelson’s 76-yard touchdown in the second quarter was a great example of all of the above, but also featured an interesting defensive shift which Rodgers saw and was able to take advantage of.
The play takes pace on a 3rd-and-6 in the second quarter with the game tied 10-10.
The Packers set up with four wide receivers and just fullback John Kuhn in the backfield. White is in the slot (or “Y”) position, while Boykin is lined up at flanker (or the “Z”). Both are off the line of scrimmage.
On the far side (top of the picture), tight end Andrew Quarless is lined up at split end (or “X”). Jordy Nelson is lined up on the line in the spot where the tight end would normally be, which might be part of the reason why the pass works so well.
The Vikings are lining up in their 4-3, despite defensive end Everson Griffin up and walking around. He eventually settles inside, though he remains upright without his hand in the dirt.
As Rodgers snaps the ball, all four receivers head out on routes, as well as Kuhn. The Packers keep nobody back to help protect Rodgers so the line has to hold up and Rodgers needs to get the ball out as soon as possible.
Kuhn runs a screen while Quarless clears out the cornerback with a short slant in. Boykin runs a post route while White goes underneath with a short slant.
Nelson also appears to run a post, though his cut is very shallow, so he might have been running a go and just adjusted to Rodgers as he ran.
Meanwhile, when the ball is snapped the Vikings run what I call a “ripple stunt.” A regular old stunt is when two players on the defense (usually defensive linemen but sometimes they involve linebackers or defensive backs) trade roles in the hopes that the offense will be confused, making it easier for the defenders to beat them and get after the quarterback.
This particular stunt is what’s sometimes referred to as cross-rushing—when a defensive lineman drops back and a linebacker charges forward hoping to take the offensive line by surprise.
I call this a ripple stunt because it involves three players in a sort of waterfall effect.
Griffin drops back to the linebacker position while strongside linebacker Chad Greenway shifts to the right and middle linebacker Erin Henderson blitzes. If you’re wondering where the other outside linebacker is, it looks as though he was replaced on this play with an extra defensive back. No. 35, Marcus Sherels is lined up across from White and blitzes.
Which is a gamble anyway because it leaves White completely uncovered. If Sherels doesn’t get to Rodgers in time—and he doesn’t—Rodgers has an outlet for the first down anyway.
It’s not a bad stunt as far as gambles go, but it has one (other) fatal flaw.
All things being equal, Greenway does a good job getting over to Nelson, though his momentum is moving in the wrong direction and his back is to Rodgers.
Still, he’s where he is supposed to be.
Here’s where that remarkable chemistry between Rodgers and Nelson comes in.
Nelson knows he essentially has Greenway beat. He knows the ball will be coming quickly and he has to be ready.
Meanwhile, Rodgers likely read the coverage shift as soon as the snap went off (assuming this isn’t something he saw in film study last week) and loved the mismatch of a linebacker on Nelson. He also knows that the sooner he gets the ball into Nelson’s hand, the better.
So Rodgers gets the ball out quickly and Nelson is ready for it when it rips past Greenway’s ear.
Because Greenway’s momentum is going the wrong direction, he loses precious moments as he tries to adjust.
Meanwhile, Nelson accelerates and few bad angles and missed tackles later, he’s in the end zone.
This was just one example of the synergy that Nelson and Rodgers have. The first touchdown Nelson caught was much the same sort of throw—pinpoint accurate and on a rope.
Rodgers knows he can throw it that way to Nelson because he knows Nelson will make that catch happen 99 times out of 100.
As for the Vikings, this is the sort of gamble which can pay off big but when it goes wrong, it really stings. While the real kill-shot was probably the 93-yard punt return touchdown by Mycah Hyde two minutes later, this was the play which really seemed to open up things for the Packers’ offense.
In a close game a gamble like that can turn things in your favor. In this case, it started an avalanche of momentum that spelled doom for the Vikings.
Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com, the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com and an NFL Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.