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Game Experience Fosters Rapid Growth For Rookies Nelson, Thompson


Injuries have forced the Packers to call upon some of their younger players for contributions earlier than perhaps expected this season, and two members of the 2008 draft class answered that call effectively in the 27-17 victory at Seattle last Sunday.

Second-round draft pick Jordy Nelson and fourth-rounder Jeremy Thompson are both showing the growth and progress hoped for since they've been getting more game action in recent weeks. The coaching staff continues to mention how both rookies are "playing faster" now, and their contributions on Sunday were particularly noteworthy because they were both matched up against Pro Bowl players.

Nelson, who has usurped the No. 3 receiver spot in the wake of James Jones' knee injury, tied his career highs with four catches for 42 yards in Seattle, with most of that damage coming against Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Trufant.

Receivers coach Jimmy Robinson believes Nelson's greatest improvement has been in his route running and called Sunday's performance "the best routes he's run," which allowed him to get open a few times against Trufant.

"He was running his routes against their best corner almost all day long, and he had him on his heels," Robinson said. "He was doing a very good job with his body language, the finish on his routes, and he had Trufant on his heels a little bit."

Nelson had three of his four receptions on the Packers' first scoring drive, which produced a field goal late in the first quarter. He had a 9-yard catch to pick up a first down, a 14-yard grab on first-and-15 that led to a short-yardage conversion, and then a 9-yard catch that came up just short of the first down prior to the field goal.

As a young player still gaining his footing in the league, it probably helped Nelson to get so involved in the offense early last week. In Week 3 vs. Dallas, Nelson had just one ball thrown his way in the first three quarters, and then on a crucial third-and-10 in the fourth period, Nelson didn't look back for the ball on a sideline route until it whistled past him.

Nelson went on to catch four passes for 42 yards on the Packers' next possession that night, but no such wake-up call was needed this past week.

"Once you have that happen to you, you start to realize, 'I'd better get my eyes back on the quarterback fast,' so you learn from things like that," Robinson said. "It certainly tunes you in to 'I'd better get my head around, and better know that I'm possibly the guy on any throw at any point in time.' When you catch some balls early, I do think it keeps you into it a little bit."

In the fourth quarter in Seattle, Nelson added a tricky 10-yard catch along the sideline to convert a third down and make it first-and-goal, leading to a touchdown and a 14-point advantage for the Packers. For the season, Nelson now has 14 catches for 158 yards and one touchdown.

"You notice him catching the ball away from his body, and he's doing a good job plucking the ball out of the air, which is how we teach it and how we want it done," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "I think you can definitely see some strides and improvement, absolutely."

Those strides are a big reason the passing offense has not suffered much from the early-season injuries to Ruvell Martin (fractured finger) and Jones.

"He's starting to kind of feel like he belongs," Robinson said. "Maybe he wouldn't describe it that way, but he knows what he has to do, he knows how to do it, and to be able to do it successfully week in and week out, you have to be able to play very, very fast, and he's starting to do that."

Thompson also stepped up his tempo on Sunday after an NFL debut the previous week against Atlanta in which Head Coach Mike McCarthy said he played "tentative."

After being inactive on gameday for the first four games, Thompson was pressed into action in Week 5 when defensive end Cullen Jenkins was put on season-ending injured reserve and Jason Hunter remained out with a hamstring injury. His snaps increased this past week with Michael Montgomery also out due to an ankle injury, and he played much more aggressively in his second outing.

"He was more decisive and showed some explosion and quickness," defensive ends coach Carl Hairston said. "He just turned it loose. If you're going to make a mistake, just make it, and make it full speed. He did some good things."

Thompson was credited with three tackles, the most significant a tackle-for-loss on Seattle fullback Leonard Weaver in the first quarter. With help from safety Aaron Rouse, who helped push Weaver's path to the outside, Thompson fought off a block from Pro Bowl left tackle Walter Jones and brought down Weaver for a 3-yard loss.

{sportsad300}"He had good leverage, and I always try to preach to him about using his long arms," Hairston said. "He did that (Sunday). That was impressive.

"When a player steps up like that in front of a good football player, it gives you a lot of promise that you can play him more now knowing that he's really turning himself loose. Hopefully that will carry over into the Colt game. He's going to get significant time in that game also."

The next step for Thompson is to start getting to the quarterback, which is what his athletic, 6-foot-4, 270-pound frame seems built to do. By getting off the ball with more urgency like he did in Seattle, that hopefully will come sooner rather than later.

"I want to see him use his speed and length as a pass rusher," Hairston said. "That's something that just takes time for a younger guy. It might take a year, it might take two years.

"But once a young guy learns how to use what's given to him, then he'll be good at it."

Nelson and Thompson are two draft picks getting a chance to make that kind of progress, and making the most of it so far.

"You see Jordy playing faster, and I think Thompson definitely made a step in that direction," McCarthy said. "That's a common progression that younger players go through because the speed of the game in the NFL is so much faster than anything they have ever experienced."

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