Nobody knows exactly how Mel Tucker is going to defend Jordy Nelson on Sunday night at Lambeau Field, but Bears fans have to love safety Ryan Mundy’s game plan.
“He’s definitely a home-run threat,” Mundy said of the Packers’ leading receiver. “We’ll just have to do our job in the secondary of making sure that we’re physical with him, get our hands on him and try to disrupt his routes.”
You could almost feel the collective nod from frustrated Bears fans at Ryan’s proposed strategy against Nelson, who has a knack for getting open against most teams, but especially against the Bears in Mel Tucker’s defense.
In Week 17 at Soldier Field last season, Nelson had 10 receptions for 161 yards in the Packers’ 33-28 victory that clinched the NFC North title. In Week 4 this season at Soldier Field, Nelson had 10 catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns in the Packers’ 38-17 victory.
So in two games with Rodgers at quarterback against Tucker’s defense, the third-round 2008 draft pick from Kansas State has 20 receptions for 269 yards and two touchdowns. That’s a pace for 160 receptions, 2,152 yards and 16 touchdowns for a full season.
And even when Rodgers was injured and missed the final three quarters against the Bears at Lambeau Field last season, Rodgers’ lone completion that night was to Nelson — who found a seam with not a Bear defender near him for a 27-yard gain. Who knows how long that night could have been had Shea McClellin not sacked Rodgers, breaking his collarbone? As it was, even with Seneca Wallace at quarterback, Nelson had four receptions for 67 yards in the Bears’ 27-20 victory.
Let the record show that Jordy Nelson is one of the best receivers in the NFL. He’s ninth in receptions (50) and eighth in yards (737) with six touchdowns this season. At 6-3, 215, he’s got an enviable combination of size, speed — he was a state-champion sprinter in high school — and football toughness and competitive savvy you can’t teach. He’s a Vikings-killer, a Jets-killer, a Rams-killer, a Cowboys-killer and a Texans-killer, too.
And the Bears strategy against him limits his big plays. The week after he caught 10 balls against the Bears this season, he only caught one against the Vikings — but it was a 66-yard touchdown that helped spark a 42-10 rout.
Nelson, in fact, has more touchdown catches of 50-plus yards (12) since 2010 than anybody in the NFL. But in the last two seasons, Nelson’s longest reception against the Bears is 34 yards. He’s had eight longer plays against the rest of the league in that span — including 80 yards against the Jets, 76 and 66 against the Vikings, 64 against the Ravens and 59 against the Panthers. Press coverage not only is easier said than done, but comes with its own risks.
“It’s not just what the [defensive backs] are doing,” coach Marc Trestman said. “It’s complementing that with the pass rush that can force the quarterback to get rid of the ball quicker so we don’t have to hold up so long. That’s the give-and-take of playing zone or man and mixing it up to create some disruption with footwork [and] decision-making.”
Whatever, the Bears have to come up with something different, because what they’re doing with Nelson isn’t working. In the last two Bears-Packers games, 16-of-20 pass plays to Nelson have gone for first downs, including six third-down conversions and one fourth-and-1 conversion.
The gripe with Tuckers’ defense is that it appears to be too easy to prepare for. Even when the Bears switch things up, they don’t seem to disguise anything very well. If the defensive line wins the battle — which could happen Sunday night with Jared Allen and Jeremiah Ratliff healthy and the Packers’ offensive line banged up — the Bears are good. If not, Jordy Nelson or Rob Gronkowski finds a seam and great quarterbacks too easily find that magical rhythm that makes them nearly impossible to stop.
The first game against the Packers was a defensive nightmare — the Bears never forced the Packers to punt and allowed five touchdowns and a field goal on seven possessions. Tucker said he would make adjustments. Adding Allen and Ratliff is a good start. If that alone doesn’t make the difference, the challenge for Tucker will be to come up with something — anything — to slow down Rodgers, Nelson and the Packers offense.
“We’ll try everything,” Tucker said when asked about defending Nelson. “We’ve got to be more physical, play faster and need better execution. All of the above.”