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Nelson Looks To Make Impact In Return Role


Wide receiver Jordy Nelson has had some success this season in his limited opportunities as a kickoff returner, and now he will look to continue that production as he takes the role on full-time with Will Blackmon lost for the season.

For the time being, both kickoff and punt-return responsibilities will fall to Nelson with Blackmon's season coming to an end in the second quarter at Minnesota in Week 4 when he sustained a torn ACL.

Nelson enters Sunday's contest with a 29.3-yard average on six kickoff returns, which ties him for fourth in the NFL. The Packers as a team rank sixth in the league with a 25.6-yard return average, a big improvement from last season when Green Bay ranked dead last in the NFL with a 20.1-yard average.

"I think the emphasis (lies) in what we are doing from a blocking standpoint, going back to last spring," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "We sat down and we decided exactly what it was we were going to do and we employed that all the way through our IPWs (Individual Position Workouts) all the way through the camps and now in the season.

"I'm seeing guys doing a good job blocking, finishing blocks. With production comes excitement and a confidence level. When we step on the field we feel like we can make it happen."

Nelson's first chance this season came in the season opener against Chicago when Blackmon was sidelined with a quad injury that he sustained in the preseason. Nelson posted career highs in returns (four), return yards (124), and average (31.0), highlighted by a career-long 46-yarder on the opening kickoff of the game.

"I think he's got good vision and he seems to be productive most of the time he is back there. I think he's got deceptive speed," Slocum said. "He's a strong runner, a north-and-south-type runner."

With Blackmon returning to action in Week 2, Nelson's next opportunities didn't come until Blackmon went out with the injury at Minnesota, and he made the most of those as well. He took his first kickoff out to the 38 and his second out to the 44, but both came back because of holding penalties.

Those penalties have been an issue thus far in the first four games, with the Packers' three holding calls on kickoff returns the most in the league. That has carried over to punt returns as well, where another three holding calls also leads the league.

"You want to play without penalties," Slocum said. "Holding is a part of this game. It's a judgment call by officials. Some you agree with, and some maybe not. Players are going to play hard and it's important that they try to play within the rules. So it's something we work on daily in doing things the correct way."

Nelson got a taste of kickoff returns as a rookie last season, the first time he handled the duty at any level of football. Those opportunities were sporadic as he posted an 18.9-yard average on just 11 returns. Only one time, at Minnesota in Week 10, did he return two kickoffs in a game.

Nelson did show some flashes of his ability, first in a preseason contest at San Francisco that saw him post returns of 58 and 56 yards against the 49ers. In the season finale vs. Detroit, he registered a (then) career-long 45-yard return, which was also the longest kick return by a Packers rookie since Javon Walker's 55-yarder in 2002 at Detroit.

"I feel really comfortable back there now," Nelson said. "I think last year I was able to get in there a little bit and not have the whole role of returning. I was mainly in there to help block, but I got a feel for it back there. This year I feel really confident and comfortable.

"It's totally different than anything else. Being a receiver, it's not even comparable. Just getting a feel for how to read the blocks, how to read the returns and then just how to hit the hole."

Nelson added that getting more reps in practice and in the games should help him find more of a rhythm.

"It's going to be a huge difference," Nelson said. "Last year I got one every once in a while, but now hopefully I'll be able to get a feel for everything. How they are covering it, see how they are pursuing, and just get a feel back there.

"I got that feeling during the Chicago week being back there every time, and hopefully that will just grow hopefully being able to do it every game from here on out."

While the Packers have seen improvement on kickoff returns, that has not carried over to the punt-return aspect yet, but that is due as much to opposing punters as well as limited opportunities.

Green Bay has averaged just 4.2 yards on punt returns, which is tied for 30th in the league, but has also had just six returns in four games, which ties them with San Diego for the fewest in the league. Opposing punters have averaged 47.7 yards per kick, tied for third-best in the league, with 11-of-17 kicks, a league-high 64.7 percent, inside the 20.

"I looked back and looked at our first four games, (17) opportunities and we had three legitimate punt-return opportunities in my opinion," Slocum said. "The first one was against Chicago, the ball was in the middle of the field and Jordy got 14 yards and about broke out of it for a long one.

{sportsad300}"Then we had one in St. Louis that didn't really get started, a 7-yard return I believe it was, and we got a holding penalty on it. Then we also had one that we got about six yards on. So that is three opportunities."

Nelson fielded just one punt at Minnesota after Blackmon left the game but muffed the catch, which Slocum attributed to the aggressive approach the Packers took in trying to get back into the game.

"We had a couple of opportunities where we would have normally fair-caught the ball," Slocum said. "We got zero return yards as a result, but with the personality of the game and the way it was going, we wanted to try to get something and maybe make a guy miss and gain a first down.

"Those were calculated risks that we took. Jordy muffed one of them again on one of those situations. He and I going on the field said, 'Let's try and get this thing started.' Typically he would have tried to fair-catch that ball."

Nelson didn't return any punts as a rookie last season, and had minimal experience with it at Kansas State. The few chances he got he made the most of, evidenced by his 52.8-yard average and two touchdowns on just five returns as a senior.

While he won't be able to match those numbers, Nelson is focused on giving the punt-return game a boost starting Sunday against a Lions team that has allowed opponents to average 11.1 yards on returns this season, the fifth-highest mark in the league.

"We're confident with our kick return," Nelson said. "I think we've been consistent with that, besides some penalties. We're really looking forward to an opportunity to return some punts. That's something we haven't really had an opportunity to do this year.

"The punters we have played have punted incredibly well. We're looking for that opportunity to go out and show that part of our special teams as well."

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