You don’t expect many kids who grow up on farms in central Kansas to become NFL stars.
But Jordy Nelson is an exception, and the Dallas Cowboys understand the challenge they have in stopping the Green Bay Packers’ elusive slot receiver when they travel to Lambeau Field for Sunday’s NFC divisional-round matchup.
Nelson is in the midst of his best season, and should be viewed as big of a threat as Detroit’s Calvin Johnson was last week. Each might have different approaches and styles as receivers, but the results are the same.
Nelson finished the regular season with 98 catches for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns, including five scores of at least 59 yards.
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“We’ve got our hands full,” cornerback Orlando Scandrick said.
“He’s got deceptive speed to get downfield,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “He’s a crafty receiver … keeps coming at you.”
The Cowboys did a solid job on Johnson on Sunday, holding him to five catches for 85 yards. And, outside of a 51-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter, they contained Golden Tate (six catches, 89 yards).
This week poses a similar challenge with Nelson and Randall Cobb. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, who shies away from making comparisons, even acknowledged it.
“You have the big-time receiver and then you have the guy who catches the ball underneath and is really challenging running the football after the catch,” Garrett said. “That’s what we faced last week, and this week it’s really no different.
“Jordy Nelson is just a really, really complete player. You’ve seen him catch all kinds of balls, he’s a vertical receiver, intermediate, short stuff, run after the catch … just a fantastic player. The quarterback loves throwing to him and Randall Cobb the same way. These guys are big-time players.”
Nelson, as Garrett alluded to, is the clear-cut playmaker for the Packers. He has the speed to break away down field, and the natural instincts to make people miss.
Cobb is dangerous, too. He has 1,287 yards in receptions and 12 touchdowns this season and is targeted just as often by Aaron Rodgers as Nelson.
More important has been the ability by Nelson and Cobb to gain yards after the catch, commonly referred to as YAC. Each were in the top 10 in that category among all receivers, as Cobb ranked seventh with 556 and Nelson ranked 10th with 481.
“Ever since you were a kid, you’ve caught a ball and learned how to run and try to avoid tackles and get as far as you can,” Nelson said this week.
But, Nelson said, the Cowboys are one of the better teams at limiting receivers’ chances to gain big yardage after the catch.
“The way they run to the ball, you have to make one move and get going,” Nelson said. “You can’t sit there and dance and try to spend a lot of time on one guy. You just have to learn those throughout the film study throughout the week and just make sure you’re aggressive.”
The Cowboys pride themselves in aggressively pursuing the ball carrier. However, it has burned them a couple times the past two weeks.
Tate got them on a 51-yard touchdown in the wild-card round, and Washington’s DeSean Jackson scored on a 69-yarder in the regular-season finale.
Asked the key to preventing yards after catch, Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli laughed and said: “I’d probably say maybe tackle. That might work pretty good.”
Easier said than done, of course.
“They’re shifty. They’re fast,” Marinelli said. “They turn and go. I really like that. I admire that, how hard they play. They block and they run routes. They play the game the way you’re supposed to.”
Drew Davison, 817-390-7760