I would love to take 20 receivers, place them in four groups of five players based on height and weight range, dress them in uniforms that cover their skin head to toe, and have them scrimmage with cornerbacks on tape. While they’re playing, I’d give the audience the names of the players in each group, and have them guess the players’ identities based on what they saw (and didn’t see). If I could pull this off, I believe Jordy Nelson would be the player with the most incorrect guesses of his identity. Big, physical, and comfortable making big catches against tight coverage, Jordy Nelson is a modern-day Michael Irvin minus the swagger and the melanin.
The Nelson-Aaron Rodgers combo is among the best in football at the back-shoulder fade. One of the reasons this play remains so effective for the Packers’ duo is that Nelson is equally strong at earning separation against press coverage and winning 50/50 balls in the vertical game. Defenders cannot assume every deep pass is a back-shoulder play.
Here’s Nelson working with journeyman quarterback Scott Tolzein against second-year cornerback Brandon Boykin in press coverage. Nelson has a significant size advantage, but Boykin is pound-for-pound one of the stronger and more explosive players for his size. Boykin is a feisty corner who can mix it up with a receiver, out-leap his competition, and if he gets his hands on the ball, make like a top-tier return specialist. Boykin has a chance to develop into a player along the lines of Brent Grimes.
The route begins with an outside release on Boykin. For the next 10-12 frames, pay attention to Nelson’s inside arm. How he uses it to work through contact, but also to set up position by maintaining intermittent contact with Boykin. Although Michael Irvin was often accused of pushing off defenders – and sometimes he did – a good wide receiver knows how to use his arms to “frame” space without pushing the opponent.
Nelson’s inside arm is cocked at an angle where he’ll soon turn his shoulder away from Boykin’s initial contact. The angle of Nelson’s arm and his shoulder turn is to prevent Boykin from getting his hands into Nelson’s chest. If Boykin gets into Nelson’s body the contact could really slow the receiver or alter the direction of the route.
As Nelson works towards the numbers, he raises his forearm to meet Boykin’s contact and maintain a barrier between his body and Boykin’s hands. This is a technique used in several press coverage drills for receivers. I see it taught year after year at the Senior Bowl.
As Nelson raises the arm to meet Boykin’s contact, the receiver then extends his arm into Boykin’s chest. This requires a size, strength, leverage advantage that Nelson possesses against most cornerbacks.
Note the change in Boykin’s body lean once Nelson locks his arm out and into the corner’s back shoulder. Boykin is fully upright and almost leaning backwards, which slows the defender’s stride, throws off his balance, and prevents further contact. It also sets the stage for Nelson to maintain this horizontal space with the defender, which will be more important for a sideline fade than vertical separation.
The arm extension earns Nelson a couple of feet outside Boykin with a lot of room to slide towards the boundary if needed. Some routes require a receiver to bet his back to the defender and control the vertical space. This route is all about the room to roam side-to-side. Nelson is patient about setting up this separation because he knows that he needs that space between himself and the boundary during the final phase of the route. Giving it up too early will make his quarterback’s throw more difficult and give Nelson less room to operate and the advantage to Boykin, who could then suffocate Nelson to the sideline – something Darrelle Revis is excellent at doing to receivers.
As Nelson and Boykin look for the target, watch how the receiver renews contact with Boykin. This serves two purposes. First, it allows Nelson to define the space between him and Boykin. It also gives Boykin a false sense of security that he’s still in good position against Nelson while looking for the ball.
Nelson slips his inside arm under Boykin’s outside arm, bracing the defender’s ribs as they run down field. I don’t know if Nelson meant to place his arm in this exact location or if placing his arm on Boykin’s arm or shoulder would have been just as acceptable. It’s a question I would love to ask Nelson. If it’s intentional, I would imagine it gives Nelson more leverage to prevent Boykin from pushing the receiver tight to the boundary. If Nelson had his arm on Boykin’s arm, the corner could extend his arm and force Nelson outside with greater ease. At the same time, I have to think that Boykin could clamp his arm to his side and prevent Nelson from pulling his arm free without a struggle.
Nelson removes his arm as the ball draws near and begins to uses some of that horizontal space. Note in the next photo that Nelson doesn’t use all of this space, because he knows once he makes the initial catch he’ll need room to shield the defender from the ball and get both feet in bounds.
Nelson is first to get his arms extended and he displays good technique with his fingers skyward, palms out, and elbows close enough so his hands will converge on the football.
Nelson high-points the ball inches above Boykin’s reach. The arrow shows where Nelson will move his arms to prevent the cornerback from swatting the ball free. This is such a minor detail, but the awareness pull the ball backwards and then bring it towards his body is why Nelson is one of the best deep threats in the game.
As Boykin swats at air, Nelson begins to turn his back to the defender so he can tuck the ball to his sideline and work up the sideline.
Look below and note that both hands remain on the ball even at belt level until Nelson can tuck the ball to one side.
Both feet are in bounds, the ball is tucked, and his back is to both defenders.
Although Nelson doesn’t stay inside the boundary, it’s a fine play that puts Green Bay in the red zone. Say what you will about a physical mismatch, but there are dozens of NFL receivers Boykin would have beaten in this situation despite giving up height, strength, and speed. Nelson’s ability to earn separation early, bait Boykin in the middle of the route, renew separation late, and make small adjustments to maintain separation during the reception is what makes this former Kansas State starter with 4.55-speed one of the better deep threats in football.
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