By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) At the end of the 2011 season, Bears cornerback Tim Jennings was at a crossroads.
Jennings was dismal in a Week 15 matchup against the Seahawks, prompting a move to the bench in favor of Zach Bowman. With both players set to become free agents at the end of the season, I viewed this move as a last chance for Bowman to make his case as a cornerback of the future. Bowman failed, giving up three touchdown passes in a Week 16 matchup against the Packers. Jennings not only found his way back onto the field late in that game, but also back to the Bears with a two-year contract worth $6.6 million.
Jennings’ physical limitations prevent him from being a full-time man-to-man cornerback, but he has found a niche in the Bears Cover-2 zone system. Jennings is a physical player, a willing and sure tackler in run support, and very aggressive. Being aggressive can be a good thing for a cornerback, as it leads to pass break-ups and interceptions, but it is also something that other teams scheme to exploit, especially when Jennings finds himself in one-on-one coverage.
Jennings didn’t give up a touchdown in 2011 — I doubt that would’ve stayed true had he started Week 16 against Green Bay — but he gave up quite a few deep passes in crucial moments of games. These passes were set up by opponents who watched Jennings biting on routes more and more as the game progressed, which presents the perfect opportunity to catch him guessing, and use his aggressiveness against him with a double move or a stop-n-go route.
The first time I observed Jennings guessing incorrectly on a route and getting caught peeking into the backfield was in Week 9 of the 2010 season against the Bills. The Bills were an 0-8 team at the time, and had the ball 1st-and-10 from their own 29-yard line, nursing a 19-14 lead, with 9:16 to go in the game. Using NFL Game Rewind, we can see that the Bills came out in “Ace” personnel (2 RB, 2 TE, 1 RB), and the Bears countered with a Cover-1 (Man Free) look, with Jennings matched-up on Stevie Johnson:
Johnson stems Jennings to the outside, gaining inside leverage, breaks down his route at seven yards, giving the look of a slant route, and you can see Jennings eyes are fixed on the quarterback instead of the receiver:
At the same time, Ryan Fitzpatrick stares down Johnson and gives Jennings a dip of the shoulder, which Jennings bites on, but Johnson continues up the field on a vertical route, leaving Jennings yards behind:
A decent throw from Fitzpatrick would’ve been a sure first down, and a great throw would’ve given the Bills a 71-yard touchdown pass and a 12 point lead, but Fitzpatrick is both late and short with the throw, allowing Jennings – who does have good recovery speed – to make a play on the ball and intercept the pass:
As athletic as the recovery on this play was, from this moment on, I paid extra attention to Jennings in coverage, as this sort of gamble goes against Lovie Smith’s defensive philosophy.
Under Lovie, the Bears defensive philosophy has been “bend don’t break”. In theory, this approach allows underneath routes, but limits opportunities for deep passes over the top. By forcing a team to string together a long drive, you increase their odds of making a mistake, which leads to turnovers, something the Bears have thrived on.
But when you consider the Bears less than desirable situation at safety in 2012 and Jennings’ propensity to jump routes on occasion, the discipline of the defense can be compromised.
Here are a few examples from the 2011 season where Jennings wasn’t as fortunate, and he gave up deep completions that turned out to be tipping points in games the Bears lost.
The first comes from the Bears Week 12 matchup against the Oakland Raiders. With 3:59 left in the game, the Raiders have the ball 3rd-and-5 at midfield. The Raiders come out in “Posse” personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB), the Bears counter with Cover 1 (Man Free), with Jennings matched up with Louis Murphy:
Murphy stems Jennings inside, gaining outside leverage, and Jennings loses the battle/jam a few yards off the line of scrimmage. Murphy gives the look of a slant, Jennings again peeks into the backfield, and Murphy has a free release down the sideline:
Unlike the Fitzpatrick pass, Carson Palmer delivers a strike and it’s off to the races, with Jennings finally pulling Murphy down at the 3-yard line:
Even though Murphy didn’t score, Michael Bush punched it in on the next play from three yards out, sealing victory for the Raiders.
Three weeks later against the Seahawks, Jennings had his worst game in a Bears uniform. At the beginning of the second half, with the Bears up 14-7, they have the ball 1st-and-10 from the Bears 46-yard line. The Seahawks line up in “Regular” personnel (2 WR, 1 TE, 2 RB), and the Bears counter with their regular personnel in a Cover 2 shell, with Jennings matched up on Ben Obomanu:
At the snap, Craig Steltz enters the box, leaving Brandon Merriweather as the single high safety, so Jennings is on an island against Obomanu. Jennings gets no re-route at all, and reminiscent of the two plays above, Obomanu gives a very simple inside fake to Jennings, and it’s off to the races again down the sidelines:
Tarvaris Jackson lays out a nice pass for Obomanu to run underneath (a pass more on a line would’ve been a touchdown), and Obomanu is pushed out at the 3-yard line, setting up Marshawn Lynch with an easy touchdown on the next play:
Playing cornerback in the NFL requires a short-term memory, as you’re eventually going to get beat. What is troubling about the way Jennings gets beat is the similarity between the plays, different opposing uniforms, same route, and the same result.
Jennings needs to concentrate on reading the wide receiver instead of the quarterback. If you get caught “peeking” into the backfield to read the quarterback, he can easily sell you with a pump fake or a dip of the shoulder to set up a throw over the top. Furthermore, Jennings needs to get better with re-routing receivers at the line of scrimmage, and playing with proper leverage.
Despite public perception, the Bears don’t run Cover-2 exclusively. They actually run a lot of Cover-1 too. In Cover-1, when you don’t get a re-route in press-man and allow a receiver to stem you inside to gain outside leverage, that’s a big play waiting to happen as there’s no help down the sidelines. In a division featuring high-octane passing attacks in Detroit and Green Bay, you can safely assume they will take several shots at Jennings this season to test his discipline.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.