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Safeties first

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September 11, 2013

Sunday night, M.D. Jennings couldn't sleep. He couldn't stop watching film.

First, the Green Bay Packers safety watched the 34-28 defeat on his iPad on the flight from San Francisco to Green Bay.

Settled back home, he watched the TV copy of the game to catch a different angle. Jennings couldn't take his eyes off the 10-car pileup. He forced himself to relive all the miscues at his position—the poor angles, the missed tackles, the touchdowns.

When he finally turned the lights off, it was 3:30, 4 a.m.

“Football is a game of inches,” Jennings said. “If I'm a yard closer, it could be an interception or a pass breakup.”

The inches did not go Green Bay's way in Week 1. Nothing about Sunday's loss was pretty for the safeties. As starter Morgan Burnett sat out with a hamstring injury, Jennings and Jerron McMillian had a game to forget. 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick picked on both players through a 412-yard, three-touchdown clinic.

With or without Burnett, Ted Thompson's vision for the position is being tested.

The Packers general manager had every opportunity to land a safety. First, he understandably released the aging Charles Woodson. Then, the Packers didn't sign a safety in free agency, didn't take one in the NFL draft and didn't land one in undrafted free agency. The lone pickup failed his physical.

All along, strong faith was placed in Jennings and McMillian progressing. Significantly. Now, that faith is on trial. Green Bay needs one of its green safeties to step up. Be it Jennings, McMillian or Chris Banjo.

The embattled duo from Sunday say there's no heightened pressure.

“Speaking for myself, you can never panic, especially in this business, especially this early in the season,” Jennings said. “You have to continue to play ball. Trust yourself, trust your technique.”

Said McMillian, “Not at all. We just have to keep doing what we do. Me personally, it's just tackling, it's tackling.”

The Week 1 report card was scattered with red ink. Too often the two were a hiccup slow and/or didn't finish. Tight end Vernon Davis sneaked behind Jennings to the corner for a 20-yard touchdown. Anquan Boldin whisked through McMillian's diving arms for another. On Boldin's crucial 43-yarder in the fourth quarter, McMillian missed another tackle and Jennings took a sloppy pursuit angle.

What should have been minor blemishes broke out into hives.

McMillian didn't sugarcoat his performance. His tackling needs a lot of work.

“It was missed tackles for me,” McMillian said. “That's it, really. Missed tackles. It's clear and cut. I just have to be stronger at the point of attack when I do come to tackle.”

The difference between hitting and tackling has been an ongoing challenge for McMillian. The majority of the time, he concedes, a safety needs to tackle—not “hit”—a receiver or back. A trash-talking, bruising presence, McMillian relishes contact. But he's not wrapping up.

And against the 49ers, he was also late locating the ball on arrival. His back was turned. Learning this timing has been a process, too.

“If you do turn your head to look,” he said, “what if he turns his route up and you get beat deep? There's so many things to it.”

When Jennings reviewed the film again…and again…and again, he saw himself playing too far outside and too far inside. Obtuse or acute, his coverage angles were skewed. Communication was not a problem, he asserted. The two young safeties—Jennings is 25, McMillian 24—played together plenty through camp and the preseason.

Knowledge of the scheme is why Jennings is here. There weren't assignment issues.

There were, however, execution issues.

Which all has many fans questioning Thompson's decisions at the position. Did he do enough in the off-season? Both safeties played close to 600 snaps last season. As always, Thompson relied on youth, on a couple promising players developing. The 2011 undrafted pickup Jennings and 2012 fourth-rounder McMillian vow their confidence hasn't wavered.

“The thing is, it's not about what people outside the stadium think,” Jennings said. “It's all about earning your teammates' respect and going out and laying it all on the line for those guys each and every Sunday.”

McMillian realizes there's been backlash since Sunday's loss. He asks for patience.

Outsiders don't realize how tough it is to play safety in this defense, he says.

“They've just been stuck in the mind of a safety that's been here for so long,” he said. “They don't know how he did his first few years in the league. You're not going to come onto the scene. You have to work into it. I have to get a feel of the game, and as the year goes on, you get better. I'll get better quickly.”

There is one unknown—Banjo.

The surprise of camp could see the field Sunday against the Washington Redskins. Coach Mike McCarthy nudged that door open Wednesday, saying the team was getting him ready. Banjo is preparing to play.

“Whether I get one snap or 200 snaps,” Banjo said. “I have to make sure that I'm prepared and ready to go.”

Asked if he could be on a short leash Sunday for Banjo, McMillian said he wasn't sure.

A lot depends on Burnett's health. His status may linger into the weekend. Hamstring injuries are, as last week attests, very unpredictable. He participated in practice Wednesday on a limited basis. Thursday's padded practice will be an important test for Burnett.

It doesn't get any easier for the safeties. The Packers are still treating Robert Griffin III as an elite dual-threat quarterback. Jennings knows more than anyone how quickly Griffin could regain confidence in his reconstructed knee—the turbo jets could flip on any snap. After tearing his own ACL at the end of his junior season at Arkansas State, Jennings endured a similar preseason recovery.

He was hesitant to play the way he wanted to, but with one 11-tackle, one-sack performance against Cam Newton's Auburn Tigers, everything changed.

At any moment, Jennings says, RGIII could morph into RGIII again.

“One big play can change everything with his whole mindset,” Jennings said. “One big run and he might snap back and say, 'I'm the old RGIII now.' You always have to respect him being able to run the ball and pass the ball.”

And the Packers are all in with youth at the position. That decision was made months ago.

Maybe Sunday was the outlier. Boldin. Davis. Kaepernick. One Friday practice to game-plan as the safety tandem. No, these were not ideal circumstances for Jennings and McMillian.

Still, shoddy safety play scarred an otherwise resilient performance on the road. Jennings and McMillian fully realize this. They accept this. Hence, those bags under Jennings' eyes Monday.

“We just have to find a way to get the job done,” Jennings said. “It doesn't really matter who's on the field. We just have to find a way to get the job done.”

 

 



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