Lions won't overlook Packers' Rodgers-to-Nelson threat

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Allen Park — If the Lions didn't say their goal was to stop the run every week, the degree to which they've praised Packers running back Eddie Lacy might be considered a slight to wide receiver Jordy Nelson, the biggest weapon in Green Bay's offense.

But the Lions insist that stopping the run is the key to stopping quarterback Aaron Rodgers from hitting his array of weapons, and they haven't forgotten about one of the NFL's best wide receivers.

The 6-foot-3, 217-pound Nelson is in the midst of a career year, already having set highs with 92 receptions and 1,433 receiving yards, ranking fourth in the NFL. His 13 touchdowns rank second in the league, but he's two scores shy of his career-best 15 from 2011.

"I think out of all the receivers I've faced, I just think the quarterback and his connection is probably the best tandem you can see because they know what they're doing before they even do it," Lions cornerback Darius Slay said of Nelson and Rodgers. "It's kind of crazy."

Nelson's ability to time sideline routes perfectly with Rodgers has been a key to his success, but because Rodgers is so good, he often receives credit for Nelson's numbers.

But Nelson belongs in the discussion of top NFL receivers for various reasons. He's heading for a top-10 finish in receiving yards for the third time in the last four years. He's also in the midst of a season better than any Donald Driver or Greg Jennings ever had for the Packers.

Nelson said his opportunities have led to the great season, and Rodgers has trusted him enough to target him 143 times in 2014, fourth most in the league.

"Just continue to develop as a receiver, continue to develop chemistry with Aaron and being on the same page and allowing him to know that he can trust me and be where I'm supposed to be and make the plays I'm supposed to make," Nelson said of his improvement.

Nelson ranks seventh among receivers with 481 yards after catch, and he's tied for 11th with 18 catches of 20-plus yards this season. Among those plays are touchdowns of 45, 59, 60, 66, 73 and 80 yards.

"Every week he's killing them deep," Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson said. "He's always made those plays, but they're pouring on this year."

Nelson is a fan of Johnson's game, too.

"A lot of it is just the way he attacks the ball," Nelson said of Johnson, who's still widely considered the best receiver in the NFL. "Obviously, he has the size that not everyone was blessed with, but that doesn't prevent him from catching with his hands and attacking the ball and making the big play."

One aspect of Nelson's game that's often overlooked is his speed. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds at the NFL combine, faster than the 4.52 Dez Bryant ran at his pro day.

"We all think he's pretty fast," defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said.

Stopping Nelson is more difficult with Randall Cobb as Rodgers' second option. Cobb ranks 10th in the NFL with 1,207 receiving yards and has 10 touchdowns.

The Lions had more success than most teams against Nelson in a 19-7 Week 3 win at Ford Field. Nelson finished with five catches for 59 yards as Slay and fellow cornerback Rashean Mathis locked him up for most of the game.

After stopping Lacy, the Lions' goal is to prevent deep plays. In Week 3, the Packers' longest plays were a pair of 18-yard passes.

Nelson said Slay and Mathis are smart and aggressive, and Lions safeties Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo have proven to be ball hawks with a combined 11 interceptions. Rodgers last threw an interception at home on Dec. 2, 2012, a streak lasting 396 attempts, but the Lions have an interception in 12 straight games, best in the NFL.

For the Lions to extend that streak, tight coverage on Nelson will be the key.

"His tape shows that he's one of the top receivers in the game, so we've just got to go out there and compete against him," Slay said.

Lions at Packers

Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. Sunday, Lambeau Field, Green Bay

TV/radio: Fox/97.1

Line: Green Bay by 7.5