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Keisean Nixon's 'dog mentality' has earned Packers' returner freedom to attack

Former Raiders specialist making impact on kickoffs, punts and defense

CB Keisean Nixon
CB Keisean Nixon

GREEN BAY – Matt LaFleur isn't going to give him an ever-green light to bring as many kickoffs out of the end zone as he desires.

But the threat to potentially break one, along with the intensity Keisean Nixon brings to the field that rubs off on his teammates, gives the Packers' return man more leeway than anyone in Green Bay has earned in quite some time.

"I love how Keisean plays," LaFleur said.

So does Aaron Rodgers, who admitted after last week's Bears game that for years when he'd see a kickoff headed to the end zone, he just wanted the touchback.

"Stay in, stay in. Don't bring it out," Rodgers would think. "Because not a lot of good stuff happened."

Nixon is changing that, having recorded five kickoff returns of 30-plus yards in the last three games, including two of 50-plus at Philadelphia, the Packers' first kickoff returns of at least 50 yards in seven years.

"I always tell Kei when he's about to go out there, 'Bring it out. Bring that out,'" Rodgers said. "Just because he brings an extra type of juice to our football team and you can win with guys like that, guys that care about it, guys that are tough and guys that make big-time plays."

Nixon is putting together one of the best seasons by a Green Bay kickoff returner in more than two decades.

His seven kickoff returns of 30-plus yards rank first in the league, two more than anyone else. Those seven, in 25 attempts, are also the most by a Packers kickoff returner since 2012, when Randall Cobb had eight in 38 tries. Cobb's nine in 34 returns as a rookie in 2011 serve as Green Bay's high-water mark since 2000.

Nixon also has taken over as the Packers' punt returner following Amari Rodgers' ball-security issues and eventual release, and he's already made an impact there in limited opportunities with a 14.0-yard average on four returns.

Special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia knows Nixon well from their three years together with the Raiders, and Bisaccia's endorsement contributed to the Packers signing him this past offseason.

Regarding key traits, Bisaccia often refers to his athleticism, hand-eye coordination and confidence, which at times borders on fearlessness. Nixon's attitude and approach have a way of firing up his teammates, which is worth the occasional kickoff return short of the touchback-mandated 25-yard line.

Nixon has taken on greater responsibility defensively as well, manning the nickel/slot corner spot and earning more playing time in the wake of cornerback Eric Stokes' season-ending leg injury and safety Darnell Savage's struggles (and subsequent foot injury).

He made the biggest defensive play of his four-year career to put the finishing touch on the win at Soldier Field, intercepting Bears QB Justin Fields in the final minute near the goal line with the Packers protecting a nine-point lead. It was his first career interception.

"Kei closed that thing out," Rodgers said. "He's the type of player I wish I'd had over the course of my career because you feel real good going to battle with a guy like that."

For a longtime veteran like Rodgers to say that speaks to just how unique Nixon's personality is. The Packers began to see it on the practice field during the spring and summer, with his effort and attitude always on display, but it wasn't yet clear what role he would play.

A valuable one in two phases has firmly taken shape since, and the Packers' defense and special teams are both better for it.

"I think he's got a dog mentality, and it's infectious," LaFleur said. "He's got great energy. He prepares the right way. He's just a heck of a competitor. I'm certainly glad that he's on our team."

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