The new Lovie 101
These days, Smith isn't afraid to bench big names if they aren't getting it done
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- On Monday night, and again Wednesday afternoon, Tim Jennings introduced himself to Chicago.
Last week, nickelback D.J. Moore was the hero after a two-interception game in Dallas. This week it was Jennings, the second-round draft pick in 2006 by the Indianapolis Colts.
Jennings was this week's unlikely hero of the secondary in the Chicago Bears' 20-17 win over Green Bay, recovering a fumble late in the fourth quarter that turned into the winning field goal.
This was supposed to be a column about Zack Bowman. Early last week, I asked him if we could break down certain parts of his game on Tuesday or Wednesday, and he readily agreed.
But Bowman lasted just one quarter before Bears coach Lovie Smith pulled him shortly after a missed tackle on a "hot" pass to James Jones. Smith had seen enough after a lackluster start for Bowman, who broke into the starting lineup early last season, picking off six passes.
Bowman, along with erstwhile starting defensive tackle Tommie Harris (who didn't even dress), became symbols of Tough Lovie.
"It's the same philosophy we've always had," Smith said. "We hold players accountable on the football field. We look at what they do on the field and we play the guys that give us the best opportunity to win."
One man down, the next man up. It's all about opportunity in the Bears' Cover-2 scheme, in more ways than one.
Regardless of the defensive alignment, the Bears' gameplan is pretty similar: bend but don't break.
Aaron Rodgers could and did throw 7-yard passes all night long against the defense, as the Bears' plan was to make the Packers work for their yardage and capitalize on any mistake. Rodgers played well against the scheme, leading three long drives and completing 34 of 45 passes. But Green Bay made a mistake at a crucial time and the Bears made it pay.
That's Lovie 101, and something the defense needs to continue this week in New Jersey against Eli Manning and the New York Giants.
Whether Bowman or Jennings is on the field is anyone's guess. Smith said he'll reveal the starter right before game time, though the smart money is on Jennings.
While the "Monday Night Football" announcing crew harped on Bowman's missed tackle, his departure was barely talked about. The situation is worth revisiting, if only to illustrate how success and failure hinge on a corner's reflexes and a little luck.
In his final series, the Packers started with the ball at the 10-yard line. Bowman was playing five yards off Jordy Nelson on the outside. Nelson ran a hard out route and safety Chris Harris was in perfect position to hit Nelson and break up the pass.
On third and 12, the Packers went four-wide and the Bears put seven at the line of scrimmage. It was an obvious blitz meant to rattle Aaron Rodgers, and one that put Bowman in straight man coverage.
With the goal of stopping a first down, Bowman was giving Jones a 10-yard cushion on the outside. So Rodgers, out of the shotgun, instantly went to his hot route, a pass to Jones two yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Bowman burst to the ball, but moved like he thought Jones was going inside, allowing the receiver to run right past him toward the sideline as Bowman dived awkwardly at him and tried to slow Jones with an arm tackle. Danieal Manning came over and knocked Jones out of bounds just before he got a first down.
With just a split-second to read and react, you can see why the best athletes often play cornerback. Talk to a corner and you'll find out how tough it is to make what looks like a simple tackle.
"It's very tough, because once you react and realize it's a quick throw, you burst out really quick," Jennings said. "You have to be able to gather yourself and break down and make the tackle. And you have a whole lot of field to cover.
"It's a real tough play as a corner. You have to be able to gather your feet, get your balance and make that tackle."
For a fan, it can be infuriating to watch a missed tackle in that situation, and a common refrain is, "Why are they playing so far off the ball?" Jennings smiled when I presented him with the fan's lament.
"Sometimes when we [are] in man to man, we have to be able to give that cushion," Jennings explained. "We have to keep everything in front of us. We don't want anyone to get behind us and you don't want to play too aggressive because that's when receivers come with double moves.
"So you definitely want to keep the guy in front of you. You want to be closer to him, so it's a bang-bang [play]; as soon as he catches it, you get him down.
"But you don't want to able to have him even with you, or close enough where he can give you a double move. You want to stay on top of him, and play it from short to deep."
But as Jennings stressed, as hard as those plays can be, corners are paid to make the tackle. It's that simple. And Smith stressed that accountability is something he's never wavered on during his tenure -- something longtime observers at the team scoff at.
"I felt like we needed a boost at the position, to give Tim an opportunity," Smith said Wednesday. "He made the most out of it. I'm very pleased with what he did."
Jennings certainly made a name for himself with his physical play, sticking Donald Driver every time he caught the ball on him. Driver caught three balls on plays that Jennings was credited with the tackle, for 6, 4 and 3 yards. That's the kind of numbers that gets you snaps in Smith's defense. But it's easy to get beat on "the island" and Jennings got nailed by Jones early in the fourth, predating his game-saving play.
On second-and-12 with 12-plus minutes to play, the Packers were in their traditional four-wide, shotgun alignment, Jennings was playing five yards off the ball, guarding Jones, with safety help.
Jones ran upfield, gave a slight twitch and broke inside of Jennings, seemingly hanging the corner out to dry. With Rodgers scrambling to his right, Jones kept moving left and caught the ball near the first-down marker. Jennings sprinted to Jones and tackled him along with Chris Harris.
That was the third play of a 12-play, 72-yard drive that took up 7 minutes, 47 seconds and ended on Rodgers' 3-yard rushing touchdown to give the Packers a 17-14 lead. You can see how a little play can turn into a big gain.
Jones and Jennings were matched up again on the pivotal play of the game later in the quarter with the game tied at 17-all.
After Rodgers got called for intentional grounding, it was second-and-20 on Green Bay's 38-yard line with less than three minutes to play.
Jennings gave Jones a 7-yard cushion and Jones ran what looked like a comeback route. Jennings was just a yard away from him when Jones caught the ball and completely missed him as Jones took off toward the sideline.
But Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher were already in hot pursuit and Urlacher punched the ball out of Jones' hand, and the ball improbably trickled behind the receiver, staying inbounds, where Jennings was trying to catch up. That play epitomizes the way Smith coaches defense. It's why the Bears went to the Super Bowl in 2007, and why they could go again this season.
"We have guys running to the ball," Jennings said. "Look at the defense and look how we rally to the football. And we're bound to get turnovers like that. When we keep hitting them, they're not going to want to keep catching those dump passes, when at least 10 guys are coming to hit them. "
The funny part about that play is that if Jennings had made the initial stick and made it third-and-long Rodgers easily could've marched the Packers down the field, burning time off the clock, for the winning field goal.
But Jennings missed, just like Bowman, but the ball bounced his way.
"That's just a play I gotta make," Jennings said. "That's my man. But I didn't give up on the play and I'm lucky my guys punched it out and I hustled to the ball. You don't want to miss a tackle on that play, because it could turn into a big play."
It did, but not for the Packers.