Commentary

Nelson saves best for Super stage

Packers' No. 4 receiver has his best NFL game in the most important one

Originally Published: February 6, 2011
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- He sat uncomfortably at his postgame podium, wearing a white T-shirt and a black cap advertising the Packers' most recent NFL championship. His 1-year-old son, Royal -- as adorable as a Hummel figurine, with blond hair, pink cheeks and blue eyes -- sat on his lap.

Each time the child squirmed, Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson grimaced.

"What hurts?" he was asked.

[+] EnlargeJordy Nelson, Aaron Rodgers
AP Photo/Paul SancyaJordy Nelson, left, became Aaron Rodgers' favorite target in Super Bowl XLV.

"Everything," he said, smiling. "I haven't played this much since college."

Nelson was a walk-on at Kansas State, a guy originally projected as a defensive back. But by his senior season, he was torching Big 12 teams at receiver. His last game there -- a loss -- was one of his best. Nelson caught 15 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown against Fresno State.

On Sunday, in Super Bowl XLV, Nelson ran through the Pittsburgh Steelers like they were so many Bulldogs. He -- not Greg Jennings or Donald Driver or James Jones -- caught nine of MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers' passes for 140 yards and a touchdown.

The Packers' No. 4 receiver has now played 49 games in his NFL career and, oddly enough, the most important one was also his finest.

"We feel like there's not any defense that can match up with us when we go four- or five-wide," Nelson said. "Aaron's job is to throw it to the guy who's open."

From the beginning, that man was Nelson. He had been targeted four times in the Packers' first two drives, when Rodgers beat nickelback William Gay for a 29-yard touchdown to give the Packers a 7-0 lead with 11:16 gone.

"It was just press [coverage]," Nelson explained. "Aaron gave me a little signal if it was press to go deep. It was actually a screen play, but he checked to a go route. That's what we hit."

Added Rodgers: "Jordy has been a consistent contributor for us. He actually wasn't a guy I've ever really thrown to on the first touchdown pass on that progression, but I kind of gave him eye contact on the signal. He made a great catch."

[+] EnlargeJordy Nelson
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesNelson broke the ice with the first score of the night on a 29-yard TD catch.

When Driver left the game early in the second quarter with an ankle injury, Nelson moved to No. 3 on the depth chart. He was targeted by Rodgers 15 times, meaning he was the focal point of nearly 30 percent of the Packers' plays -- an extraordinary number for a guy who caught only 45 balls for 582 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season.

In the postseason, Nelson has been a revelation.

In three playoff games against Atlanta, Chicago and Pittsburgh, he produced a total of 21 catches for 286 yards and two touchdowns -- about a half-season of work.

Nelson could have been the hero of the game -- or the goat. He had three drops that, at the time, appeared to be costly. He also had a lunging play on a long ball in the end zone that would have given him another touchdown.

"I'm glad Aaron kept coming back to me," Nelson said. "But I'll tell you, when we look back on this game, we won't see the drops."

Rodgers said the drops were, in a way, appropriate.

"That is just like our season," Rodgers said. "A lot of adversity. Sam [Shields] was done. Charles [Woodson] was down. Donald [Driver] was down. Jordy Nelson, huge game. Jarrett Bush, interception.

"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."

Perhaps Nelson's biggest play came early in the fourth quarter with the Packers nursing a 21-17 lead. On third-and-10 at the Steelers' 40, Rodgers found Nelson for a 38-yard gain.

After Rodgers was sacked, he hit Jennings with an 8-yard touchdown pass, and the Packers had built an insurmountable lead.

Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu was asked what made Nelson so dangerous on this particular day.

"I don't think we worried about any of their receivers on an individual basis," he said earnestly, pausing. "It helps when you have a really good quarterback."

Nelson broke the Packers' record for receiving yards, surpassing the legendary (and, according to lore, hungover) Max McGee, who had 138 in Super Bowl I. McGee went out on the town the night before Green Bay beat Kansas City.

On Sunday night -- after the game -- Nelson had earned the license to celebrate.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.