Senior writer jclombardi profiles WR Jennings.
Packers receiver Jennings comings out of dark: When the Green Bay Packers spent the off-season tailoring their offense to highlight tight end Jermichael Finley, they didn’t think it would leave wide receiver Greg Jennings running routes on a bridge to nowhere. But if you compare Jennings’ first five games with his last seven – games in which Finley has not appeared – it’s as if he has emerged from a total eclipse. First five games: 14 catches for 183 yards (13.1 average) and three touchdowns. Last seven games: 43 catches for 761 yards (17.7) and eight touchdowns. It just so happens that the start of that seven-game tear – six catches for 133 yards and a touchdown against Miami – coincides with the first game Finley was not in the lineup due to a knee injury. Finley was eventually put on injured reserve and Jennings’ numbers immediately skyrocketed. Asked what’s been the reason for the sudden increase of catches, Jennings said: “Probably a little bit more eyeballing from the head guy over there, (No.) 12, trying to get the ball to me a little bit more.” “I think Mike (McCarthy) had (made it so) Jermichael was not a tight end, he was a receiver and we can use him in a four-receiver set,” receiver Donald Driver said. “We didn’t have to add another receiver. Now that he’s gone, we’re able to move to Big Five and Big Four. All our guys stepped up.” Other factors have contributed to Jennings’ success. Driver’s thigh injury limited his output for a four-game stretch, although James Jones and Jordy Nelson picked up a great deal of that slack. Also, Jennings is just red-hot, much like an outside shooter in basketball. “I think he’s in a groove,” receivers coach Jimmy Robinson said. “I think he’s gotten a lot of opportunities in the last few weeks and he’s seeing it well, catching it well. It’s all kind of clicking offensively. “We’re protecting Aaron and he’s playing at a high level, taking care of the ball and making accurate throws. It’s all working better than it was earlier.”
Jennings shakes off sluggish start: But it was in that game against the Redskins that the Packers lost budding star tight end Finley to a season-ending knee injury. Suddenly, the focus of the passing game would have to shift back to Jennings, who has coming off consecutive seasons in which he led the Packers in receiving yards (1,113 in 2009 and 1,292 in 2008). What followed has been one of the most productive stretches of Jennings’ five-year NFL career. In his last seven games, Jennings has caught 43 passes for 761 yards and eight touchdowns. That followed an opening five games in which he had just 14 catches for 183 yards and three touchdowns. Prorated over a 16-game period, his pace from the last seven games would equate to a season with 98 catches, 1,739 yards and 18 touchdowns. The yardage total would be just 109 yards shy of Jerry Rice’s single-season NFL record. Those numbers wouldn’t have been possible had Finley stayed healthy, and Jennings knows it. It’s why he never thought the Pro Bowl was a possibility this season. It might be now. He’s second in the NFC behind only Atlanta’s Roddy White in receiving yardage and his 11 touchdowns rank second in the NFC, only one behind Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, although his 57 catches ranks just 12th in the conference. In his last three games, Jennings has had 122 yards receiving against San Francisco, 119 at Atlanta and 152 at Minnesota. That resembles the three-game stretch he had in early 2008, when he had 167 yards at Detroit, 115 against Dallas and 109 at Tampa Bay. The loss of Finley, who was a major part of the passing game throughout the preseason and the first month of the regular season, helped shift the focus back to Jennings. On a free play because of an offsides infraction by the 49ers, Jennings went deep last Sunday and caught a 57-yard touchdown pass. “He’s caught the ball extremely well,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “We’ve always been pleased since the day he got here with his route-running ability and his ability to break away from man-to-man coverage. We’ve seen a good bit of that during this stretch. He’s made the plays that present themselves. The play-action and roll-out type of play that we threw to him (against the 49ers), that’s a heck of a throw and an excellent route. Guys are on the same page. You don’t see a whole lot of those. So he’s playing well.”
UPDATE: An amazing stretch for Jennings (ESPN)–Jennings success–First, Packers coach Mike McCarthy is getting as many receivers on the field as possible — to flood the zone, so to speak. The Packers lead the NFL in five-receiver sets, and they’ve used three receivers on 423 of their 732 plays this season, the eighth-highest total in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Second, Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. suggests the Packers have excelled at “attacking different levels” — intentionally varying how far downfield they throw in order to keep defenses off balance. Indeed, according to ESPN research, Rodgers has achieved a nice balance on the types of routes he’s targeted. Finally, Williamson and I agree, some credit should go to the individual skill sets of Jennings and Rodgers. The 57-yard touchdown Jennings caught Sunday against 49ers, for example, was the result of a perfectly-placed ball from Rodgers and elite ball skills from Jennings.
UPDATE: After early season wake up call, Jennings masters big plays–Attitude plays a major role as well. At 5-foot-11, 198 pounds, Jennings is the only player among the players ranked among the top 10 in receiving yards who is listed under 6 feet. So how does Jennings make up for the fact he’s not among the most physically imposing receivers in the league? “I carry a lot of (swagger),” Jennings said. “Seriously, I don’t say much about my individual ability but I know what I’m capable of doing. When I’m out there on the field, I don’t feel like I can be covered by any defensive player. That’s just the mind-set you have to have when you’re out there. It’s not about talking about it. It’s more so about being about it and letting your actions speak for you.” Lately, Jennings has done that in the form of big plays.