GLENDALE, Ariz. — J.J. Nelson probably deserved to celebrate his first NFL touchdown in Sunday’s 34-31 win, but Larry Fitzgerald wasn’t about to let the rookie receiver forget about the second one he let get away.
With the Cardinals leading 21-14 late in the third quarter, quarterback Carson Palmer hit Nelson with a short pass that Nelson turned to the sideline. Before he could make it to the end zone, however, Nelson was hauled down from behind by Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson at the Cincinnati 17-yard line.
“I said, ‘you run a 4.2 at the (Scouting) Combine and you get run down by a 6-foot-8, 290-pound defensive end?'” Fitzgerald said. “It was disheartening.
“I was like, ‘man you got caught. That’s bad.'”
The rest of the receivers quickly joined Fitzgerald in the grief-giving session.
“They owned me for that,” Nelson said, laughing. “I told them that my knee was killing me but they weren’t hearing those excuses. I’m going to hear about that for the rest of the season.”
Nelson was happy to take the ribbing. It meant he was a big part of the game plan in a game where the Cardinals needed his contributions. With Michael Floyd out of the lineup with a hamstring injury and speed threat John Brown estimating he was only at about 75-80 percent with the same injury, Nelson stepped to the fore and caught four passes for 142 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown catch that tied the game at 14-14 early in the third quarter.
“Most guys that have that kind of speed don’t catch the ball as naturally as he does,” Fitzgerald said. “He catches it very fluidly and can get in and out of his breaks. It just adds another dimension to the core that we already have.”
It’s no secret that coach Bruce Arians likes speed, and it was easy to see why when Nelson caught his TD pass, Brown caught an 18-yard TD pass and running back David Johnson caught a 16-yard TD pass off a wheel route.
“I like speed that comes in any kind of package,” Arians said. “It is nice when it is 6 foot 4 and 220 pounds, but if it’s a buck fifty-eight and it’s still fast, you don’t have to be big to catch it over your shoulder. I have always liked fast little guys that are quick and can take the top off the coverage. Those little guys are exciting.”
Nelson knew all week that he’d have a bigger role in the offense. Receivers coach Darryl Drake told him so at the start of the practice week.
“I knew then and there that I had to get my mind right and get ready to play,” Nelson said.
Nelson said he and Palmer executed the very play that led to his touchdown in practice, but the two were out of sync on a couple other plays, including Palmer’s second interception of the first quarter when Nelson got bumped off his route and Palmer still threw deep. Palmer hinted that might have been a product of so little time practicing together.
“I spend so much time with Larry and Mike (Floyd) and Smokey (John Brown) and then I’m also trying to cut back at this time of year where I’m not trying to throw 100 balls at practice,” Palmer said. “There’s a fine line of getting in that rhythm and timing with guys that you’re not used to playing with and not overthrowing too much so you’re ready to play on Sunday.”
Nelson admitted it was difficult to prepare with so little time running with the first team. He missed four weeks after suffering a shoulder injury against the Chicago Bears in Week 2, and he was inactive last week.
“It’s tough but at the end of day you’re there to do your job and play,” he said. “Me and Smoke are like brothers. We hang out all the time and we’re both the same size so he coached me up. He told tell me what guys were going to do against me because he’s been through the fire.”
As reporters approached Nelson in the locker room after the game, Brown, Fitzgerald and Jaron Brown started chanting “TV time, TV time” while Nelson smiled sheepishly.
“I can’t wait to see his interview on Sunday Night Football because you can’t get him to talk,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s like a church mouse. He won’t open his mouth so I’m really interested to see that interview.”