Jennings discovers he’s a marked man
It’s the type of confidence the 2010 Pro Bowl selection has in his ability.
But Jennings often needs some help from his friends and now probably more than ever. If the playoff opener against Philadelphia is any indication, Jennings is going to draw a crowd Saturday in a divisional playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons.
The Eagles centered their defensive plan on shutting down Jennings, the Packers’ leading receiver and resident big-play artist. Rodgers threw him the ball five times, and four were missed connections, including one drop. Jennings finished with one catch for 8 yards, the lowest output he’s had in a start since the end of his rookie season in ’06 when he had one catch for 2 yards against Minnesota.
“I talked to one of their guys after the game, Ellis Hobbs, and he basically said, ‘We were doubling you wherever you went.’ It was clearly visible what they were doing from the jump.”
It’s not the first time Jennings has been double-teamed, but as Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott confirmed, a big part of the scheme was designed to keep Jennings in check.
Often, the Eagles used what is known as “cloud” coverage, which means a safety is hanging around Jennings to double-team him if he tries to go deep. Other times, the Eagles flared a linebacker into the flat and dropped the cornerback so Jennings couldn’t run a slant in the middle or a deep route down the sideline.
“They mixed up their coverage some,” Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “They put in a little cloud coverage where the corner was up and the safety rotated on top. I think early in the game they did more of that and then later we thought they became in tune with how they usually play, a little more pressure.”
It could be argued that Jennings helped open the door for running back James Starks to have his breakout 123-yard rushing performance given a safety was usually occupied with double coverage instead of playing in the box. Until the second half, the Eagles didn’t seem willing to commit a safety to the line of scrimmage to stop the run.
There’s a very good chance the Falcons watched that tape and liked what they saw. They are not as blitz-happy as the Eagles and prefer to play Cover-2, so they very easily could shift their zone to take away Jennings.
A really good reason they’re going to want to keep an eye on Jennings is that he caught five passes for 119 yards and put a little bit of a scare into the Georgia Dome crowd on the final play of a 20-17 game Nov. 28 when he caught a short pass and jetted upfield.
He ultimately lateraled the ball away, but if he would have kept running it would have made things interesting. Jennings played very fast on the FieldTurf surface at the Georgia Dome as he does in most indoor venues.
In 16 career dome games, Jennings has 71 catches for 1,289 yards and 10 touchdowns. That’s a per game average of 4.4 catches, 80.5 yards, 0.625 touchdowns and a healthy 18.2 yards per reception.
In the rest of his games, he averages 4.2 catches, 66 yards, 0.5 touchdowns and 15.6 yards per reception.
Jennings put it in terms anybody can understand when expressing his love for domes.
“What’s today’s date?” he asked. “We play them (Jan. 15). If we weren’t playing football I would be inside the house because it’s cold outside.
“I wouldn’t go outside and play basketball right now. I’d go somewhere inside where the gym is with a nice, warm ball that doesn’t affect my jump shot, you know?”
The problem Jennings may face is that he might not get a chance to take very many shots Saturday. If he is doubled all over the field, he’s going to have to get by with a little help from his friends.
“Regardless of what they do, we have enough guys who can step up and make plays,” Jennings said. “Obviously, with Starks running the ball the way he did, it made it even easier for us. That’s going to be the mantra of the teams going further. But we have to be able to make plays.
“That’s why it’s so important to come together. No individual egos. One ego, that’s the Packers ego. That’s the mind-set of getting it done. I don’t care how we get it done, who gets it done, who makes that play, somebody just needs to make it and we’re all smiling at the end of the day.”
Receivers coach Jimmy Robinson said the offense has ways to put Jennings in one-on-one coverage, but he said if a team is determined to take him away, then they’ll just rely on Donald Driver, James Jones and Jordy Nelson. It follows that if Jennings is taking away two defenders, then one of the other guys is facing just one.
“Any one of our guys is capable of making plays,” Robinson said.
And if the doubles go on all game, Jennings has to accept that the ball might not come his way.
“If they’re going to double me, I’m going to make them work to double me,” Jennings said. “So I have to run the route as though, ‘Look, you’re not doing a good job, so you have to even focus more.’ It’s opening everything else up. Right now, that’s my mind-set.”