Jordy Nelson is on pace for a career year. Through five games played, he is on track for 86 receptions, 1,550 yards and nearly 13 touchdown receptions during the regular season. Nelson is explosive, averaging 17.9 yards per reception, and he is currently No. 7 in the NFL averaging 96.8 yards receiving per game. The Green Bay Packers let Greg Jennings walk this offseason in part because of their faith in Nelson, and he has repaid the team in spades.
Unfortunately for Nelson, he'll be going up against another budding star this weekend in Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden. Few defensive backs have gone up against more elite talent than Haden this season, and the fourth-year corner has more than held his own. Mike Wallace managed just one reception for 15 yards against Haden in the season opener. A.J. Green was thrown at 15 times but managed just seven receptions for 51 yards against the Browns in Week 4. Last weekend, an admittedly hobbled Calvin Johnson manage just three receptions for 25 yards off eight targets. Haden is, without a doubt, one of the premier shutdown corners in the league.
Nelson and Haden have not faced each other much over their careers. The Packers and the Browns played each other during the preseasons of 2010, 2011 and 2012, and the starters likewise received limited snaps. The 2012 meeting may stick in the minds of both players, however. Early in the first quarter Nelson twice made a fool of Haden during a three-play stretch. On 1st-and-10 from the 23-yard line, Nelson blew past Haden and was streaking open in the end zone but was overthrown by Aaron Rodgers. On 3rd-and-7, the Packers ran the same route, and Nelson caught the ball over a better-positioned, but outmatched Haden in the end zone.
The clip of those two plays should provide Packers fans with a lot of comfort, though two plays represent an incredibly small sample size to extrapolate a prediction from. Helping Nelson's case a bit more is the fact that Rodgers is still his quarterback. Andy Dalton and Ryan Tannehill are fine signal callers in their own rights, but neither is a former NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion.
Then again, this year's Browns are perhaps the best Cleveland has seen since the 10-6 squad from 2007. The Browns are giving up just 214 yards passing per game this season at a league-low 5.8 yards per pass attempt. The pass rush ranks No. 6 in the NFL with 19 sacks so far this season. The Packers faced similarly tough challenges from the Browns' AFC North compatriots the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens. Rodgers had iffy outings against both, throwing two touchdowns to three interceptions and taking seven sacks across both games.
Nelson was productive in both games, however, catching eight passes for 93 yards against the Bengals and four passes for 113 yards and a score against the Ravens, so if he is finally held in check against the Browns then Haden will deserve much of the credit. Vice versa, the Browns have had no problem sticking Haden on an island with wide receivers this season, and putting up big numbers across four quarters will be a testament to Nelson's development and place among NFL elite.
Nelson has made it his mission to get behind secondaries this season, and Haden has made it his to shut down every big name he faces. Both players have become accustomed to winning one-on-one matchups. Sunday's showdown should be incredibly fun to watch.