Route running is an art that requires discipline and detail. If a receiver is a few inches off the designed depth, or opens his shoulders too early, an interception is waiting to happen. Only a few can consistently run good routes, one of whom is Jordy Nelson.
Watch Nelson set up one route and you've watched him set up many. He's remarkably consistent, making it look easy with nearly flawless technique.
Nelson runs with a natural forward lean to get out of his breaks quickly. It allows him to sink his rear and explode off a cut when he needs to. He also keeps his shoulders square and his head straight - he doesn't look to the direction he's going in after the snap, leaving defenders guessing what route he'll run.
In Week 4 against the Chicago Bears, Nelson lined up in the right slot on third-and-8. Two Bears safeties were deep, and underneath were two linebackers, each inside of the ends of the formation. There was a hole in the middle of the field, an opening for a dig route.
Nelson released freely off the line and ran 10 yards. Each step, each yard covered, looked the same. The No. 87 on the back of his white jersey didn't move when his arms swayed back and forth. He looked forward, like when running a go-route, as he ran past the near linebacker.
Suddenly, he jabbed his left foot and cut toward the middle of the field. He hadn't turned his head yet when he cut; he wasn't going to until he ran behind the linebacker because it could give away the route.
The second he crossed the linebacker, Nelson whipped his head around and slowed, waiting for the throw to come. He caught it for 15 yards and took a big hit.
Unlike some receivers, Nelson makes hard cuts on his underneath and downfield routes. It allows him to generate lower body explosiveness to burst after the cut. It also transitions to a change of pace, which he does by slowing after the cut to focus on the throw and looking to pick up yards after the catch.
Against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 1, Nelson ran a curl route facing press coverage. He was lined up outside the numbers and easily released outside. He sprinted a few yards from the sideline, leaving enough room for a throw and a comeback route if he had to convert to it. His sprint caused the cornerback to play tight coverage and hurry downfield to avoid getting beaten over the top.
Nelson had the cornerback right where he wanted him. By running with his shoulders square and his head straight at full speed, he kept the cornerback guessing.
Nelson leaned back and abruptly stopped in three steps and sunk his rear like he was sitting in a chair. The cornerback kept running downfield, leaving Nelson wide open to turn around and catch the pass. It's like his limbs went dead on the cut. And then immediately after the cut and catch, he burst again for a half dozen yards to pick up 16 on the play.
Whether it's press-coverage or off-coverage, Nelson keeps the defender at bay. The defender might still be in his backpedal or shuffle when Nelson eventually cuts. It's all in the art of route running.
In the third quarter against the New York Jets, the game was tied at 24. Outside the numbers, Nelson was isolated against the Jets' best cornerback, Dee Milliner. Milliner gave him a three-yard cushion before the snap, which Nelson ate up when the play began.
Nelson released straight ahead and nipped at Milliner's shuffling heels. Again, Nelson ran with a forward lean, his shoulders square and his head straight. Milliner watched him (and the quarterback) and anticipated a deep inside-breaking route until Nelson leaned back and cut outside.
Milliner immediately fell behind. He was still shuffling his feet when Nelson robotically turned outside, showing only the back of his jersey to the defender, and changed pace. Milliner tried to recover by planting and cutting outside, but then Nelson cut again, making the same kind of cut that he did against the Bears, and burst down the sideline. Wide open, he caught a heave and cut to the middle, past the safety, for an 80-yard touchdown.
Nelson makes route running look easy. He runs with natural lean and strong technique, making it all look the same, which few receivers can do. That's why it's difficult for young pass catchers to turn on his film and study his routes. At the same time, it's why so many fail in the NFL.