GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP)Keisean Nixon has emerged as a pleasant surprise in the Green Bay Packers’ otherwise disappointing season.
The Packers (6-8) signed the former Las Vegas Raiders cornerback in the offseason in hopes of upgrading their special teams. They didn’t know at the time Nixon would provide that spark with the ball in his hands.
Nixon, 25, arrived at Green Bay with a reputation for his skills in kick coverage. He has spent the past several weeks establishing himself as one of the NFL’s top kick returners.
His strategy is simple.
”Honestly I treat returns just like I did in Pop Warner,” Nixon said. ”I just run fast. And I’m faster than other people.”
Nixon has eight kickoff returns of 30-plus yards and three of 50-plus yards to lead the NFL in both categories. Nixon has done all that even though he didn’t have his first kickoff return until the Packers’ sixth game of the season.
His return skills have caught the attention of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The four-time MVP quarterback noted after Green Bay’s Monday night victory over the Los Angeles Rams that it marked the first time in his 18-year career he had ever seen an opposing team try to kick the ball away from one of the Packers’ returners.
Nixon still had a 52-yard kickoff return in that game as well as a 49-yarder that was wiped out by a penalty.
He has at least one kickoff return of at least 30 yards in four straight games, making him the first Packer to put together that kind of streak since Sam Shields in 2010. Nixon will try to make it five straight Sunday when the Packers visit Miami (8-6).
”He’s tough, and I don’t use that characteristic lightly,” Rodgers said. ”There’s just not the same amount of mentally, physically tough guys in the league, and he’s one of them. He’s a guy I wish I could’ve played a decade with because you can win with guys like that – smart guys who are mentally and physically tough who play with an edge, play with an attitude.”
That attitude helped make Nixon a solid special teams player for three seasons with the Raiders after signing as an undrafted free agent from South Carolina.
After the Packers hired former Raiders special teams coordinator and interim head coach Rich Bisaccia to run their special teams, Nixon followed him to Green Bay.
”In junior college (at Arizona Western), I had all the confidence in the world,” Nixon said. ”I feel like for a while, I kind of lost confidence. But being back in Green Bay, I feel like this coaching staff and these players, they’re bringing it back out of me. I’m getting comfortable and I feel like I’m really in my groove right now in all phases.”
Nixon has contributed more on defense than expected. He has played 33% of the Packers’ defensive snaps after never playing more than 15% of the defensive snaps in any of his three seasons with the Raiders.
But it’s on special teams where he really has stood out – particularly in this new role.
”He plays with a confidence that’s not a fake confidence,” Rodgers said. ”I think so many times you see certain players around the league who have kind of a fake confidence where, when it’s going good, like a front-runner mentality. Kei doesn’t have that. He’s a bulldog. He’s tough all the time. He plays strong. We love having guys out there who compete like that, and he does it every single day.”
Nixon had a total of six kickoff returns and no punt returns in his three seasons with the Raiders. The Packers entered this season with Amari Rodgers as their main kickoff and punt returner, but fumbling issues led to his release in mid-November.
Now the Packers are wondering where they might be if Nixon had been their return guy all along. As it is, the Packers likely will need to win their final three games and get plenty of help to reach the postseason.
”I know I’m probably going to get criticized for not playing him early, and that’s fair,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said after the Rams game. ”We should have had him in there earlier, and we didn’t. I don’t think we knew what we had.”
Nixon always knew what he had to offer. He savors this long-awaited opportunity to showcase it.
”I’ve got supreme confidence, for one,” Nixon said. ”Two, it’s fun. I don’t want to take it too serious. I think of everything like I did playing with my friends outside in Long Beach just playing streetball, for real.”
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