David Nelson is used to performing away from the spotlight. He played his college ball and won national titles at Florida, and though productive he served as a complementary receiver to the likes of Percy Harvin, Aaron Hernandez and Riley Cooper. As a rookie with the Bills he found a similar niche to that of Lee Evans and Stevie Johnson. Now in his second season in Buffalo, with the offense one of the highest-scoring in the league, Nelson is getting more attention on the field than he's ever experienced before.
In the past few games Nelson has seen more concerted efforts to neutralize him in Buffalo's passing game, and for good reason. The slot receiver is second on the team in receptions and receiving yards. But the Jets were dead set on taking Nelson away as an option for Ryan Fitzpatrick in their 27-11 victory over Buffalo using a linebacker underneath along with a defensive back in coverage.
"We've been starting to see more of that each and every week," said Nelson, who had four catches for 36 yards and a touchdown late in the game Sunday. "It's just something that I've got to get used to. It's something different than I've ever been through in my career in both college and pro."
Fitzpatrick didn't shy away from trying to go to Nelson to make plays against the Jets, but both of his interceptions were on plays when he had his slot receiver targeted. On both occasions New York uncharacteristically dropped linebackers into coverage. In the first instance it was Calvin Pace, and on the very next possession in the second quarter it was David Harris. Both came up with the ball for the Jets.
"You watch film on them and they're very aggressive and send guys from all different directions," said Nelson in reference to the Jets' blitz scheme. "Usually when they send guys, they send them and there's usually not a whole lot of faking blitz and dropping back and that was something different than we had seen. In the first half we didn't know what to expect and when they did that it was kind of surprising to us obviously with the two picks. They changed that up. They came out with a great game plan."
The Jets also knew that Nelson was a popular target of Fitzpatrick on third downs. The slot receiver is tied for sixth in the AFC with 10 receptions on third down this season.
"It was situational," said Nelson. "During the two minute drill they kind of did some stuff. They knew my career has been pretty successful in two-minute drill and on third down so I think they were trying to find situations where there's a tendency for the ball to go to me. They did a good job of it. They had two weeks to look at us and figure out what we do and they came out and did a great job."
Knowing future opponents are going to try to incorporate some of what the Jets did into their own game plans for Buffalo, Nelson feels a sense of urgency to combat what he knows he'll likely see again in the weeks to come.
"It's something we've got to fix now," he said. "We're getting to back stretch of the season. We're 5-3 and we're in the AFC East hunt and we're trying to get to the playoffs. I need to step up and make some plays. We can't have a learning curve. I have to step up and handle the situation and beat double coverage, bracket coverage whatever you want to call it. I have to watch tape and get together with Fitz and figure out how to beat every situation."
Of course beating double teams is easier said than done, especially when it's something new for a receiver that's rarely faced it in a live football setting. Furthermore NFL defenses are sophisticated enough where if they're determined to neutralize a threat on an opponent's offense they're capable of doing it.
"There are not a lot of answers for double teams," said head coach Chan Gailey. "If somebody respects you that much and they want to take away a guy, they can take away a guy. You've got to be good enough everywhere else to be able to execute and move the ball down the field. If they jam him and put an extra guy on him and things like that, that's a great deal of respect, but at the same time you're not going to get away from that a lot."
That puts the burden on Buffalo's other receivers like Stevie Johnson, Donald Jones, Naaman Roosevelt and Scott Chandler. Nelson is confident his fellow passing game targets are more than capable of making their share of plays. He knows double teams on him will lead to opportunities for them.
"We had some guys like Naaman, who had a great game in terms of running some great routes and getting open though he didn't have many catches. We've got some guys on this team, so guys are going to step up and make plays and fix it now."
Nelson realizes there are likely to be more plays for his teammates to make with the attention he has been drawing from defenses of late, but it's not going to keep him from making every effort to maintain his level of production for Buffalo's offense.
"It's another challenge for me," he said. "I've got to rise up and accept the challenge and continue to make plays."