Wed, 29 Nov 2023

Packers cornerback leads the NFL in kickoff return yards, average this season Wes Hodkiewicz

GREEN BAY - It's been a little more than a year since the Packers granted Keisean Nixon his wish and allowed the fifth-year cornerback to return kickoffs.

And what a year it has been.

Since Nixon brought out that first kickoff against the New York Jets on Oct. 16, 2022, no one has been more dangerous than the cornerback-turned-All-Pro returner.

Over a span of 21 games, Nixon has produced 1,511 yards and a touchdown on 54 kickoff returns with the Packers. His 28.0-yards-per-return average is second only to Dave Hampton's 28.2 in team annals.

After practicing some patience, Nixon has been back to his usual tricks in recent weeks. He's broken 40-plus-yard returns to open the second half in back-to-back games against the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh.

Nixon's seven 40-plus-yard returns lead the NFL over the past two seasons. Only Carolina's Raheem Blackshear has more than four.

"We always feel like when he's back there that he can take them all to the house," said running back AJ Dillon, who serves as a blocker on kickoff returns. "We break it down on 'House' call. He's an electric guy back there. He can make people miss, has the speed to go the distance. He's done it before."

At the midseason mark, Nixon leads the league in both return yards (502) and average return yards (26.4). Only two players - New Orleans' Rashid Shaheed and Washington's Antonio Gibson - have more than 250 return yards and both have played one more game than Nixon.

On the heels of the first first-team All-Pro season by a kickoff returner in Packers history, Nixon didn't see many kicks coming his way through the first two weeks of the season. However, the opportunities have started to increase as the temperatures drop.

The 26-year-old cornerback busted a 51-yard return out of halftime against the Rams before breaking a 49-yard return to start the third quarter in Pittsburgh. Starting at the Steelers' 44, the Packers used the field position to set up an eventual Anders Carlson field goal after an 11-play, 31-yard drive.

Nixon finished with five returns for 159 yards, second only to his 172 yards on five returns against Philadelphia last November.

"We're over there watching the return on the side, and we know what type of returner Keisean is," quarterback Jordan Love said. "It just takes one crease for him to get loose and it's always awesome to see him when he can find that crease and get down the sideline. We're always ready for him to take it to the house."

Week 10 was Nixon's eighth game with 100-plus kickoff return yards on five or fewer returns since the start of last season, the most over a two-season span by an NFL player since Cordarrelle Patterson had nine in 2013-14.

Nixon's average of 26.4 yards per return currently leads all qualifying kickoff returners while pushing Green Bay to third as a team, trailing only Denver (33.6 ypr) and Carolina (31.5 ypr).

"Keisean's dynamic," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "When he's got the ball in his hands, he's capable of breaking a big play, if not taking it to the house. And I think the guys in front of him ... they do a great job blocking for him. They take pride in that because they know he's got that ability."

Nixon had a strong day defensively against the Steelers, too. In addition to his production on special teams, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound cornerback nearly intercepted Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett on a sideline pass intended for Diontae Johnson.

Nixon darted in front of Johnson to make the catch but didn't get two feet down in bounds, which former Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas made sure Nixon heard about after the game.

As good as Nixon's return numbers look, the fifth-year veteran cares about only two things: winning games and scoring touchdowns. Since neither happened in Pittsburgh, Nixon feels his work is far from over.

"Whenever I get the ball, I think I'm gonna do something with it every time, whether I do something with it or not," Nixon said. "A lot of stuff (is) a big deal to everybody else, but it don't be a big deal to me. If I don't score, I don't think I did anything, so it don't really be a big deal. I haven't done anything yet."

The Packers face a stiff challenge this Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers. On top of possessing one of the NFL's top punt returners in Derius Davis, the Chargers feature a strong-legged kicker, Cameron Dicker, who's had just four of his 48 kickoffs returned this season.

Meanwhile, Nixon champs at the bit for his next opportunity. During his All-Pro season in 2022, Nixon steadily built momentum en route to scoring his first touchdown on a 105-yard kickoff return against Minnesota in Week 17.

Could his back-to-back big returns against the Rams and Steelers be a sign of things to come?

"I hope so. It's getting better," Nixon said. "It's getting cold, the ball getting hard. Just like we always said, they can't just kick it out of the end zone every week they want to, so they gotta see us."

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