It was Week 15 last season when Chicago Bears cornerback Tim Jennings hit rock bottom. After starting off the 2011 campaign strong, Jennings faded down the stretch. Things came to a head against the Seattle Seahawks.
With the Bears up 14-7, and in desperate need of a home victory to keep their playoff hopes alive, Jennings fell apart.
On a 1st and 10 from near midfield, the Seahawks lined up in I-formation with QB Tavaris Jackson under center and WR Ben Obomanu split right. The Bears countered with a stacked box and Cover 1 (man coverage, single safety deep), pressing on the outside.
At the snap, the Seahawks run a play-action fake. Obomanu uses a stutter step and flies past Jennings' outside shoulder.
Jennings never gets a hand on the receiver and Obomanu is able to gets four yards of separation, getting behind safety Brandon Meriweather as well. He makes the easy catch before going out of bounds at the 2-yard line, setting up the game-tying score.
This play served as the catalyst for a 31-0 Seahawks run, which effectively ended Chicago's playoff hopes. The following week, Lovie Smith benched Jennings in favor of Zack Bowman. It was then that Jennings realized he had to get better if he was going to be a contributing member of Chicago's defense going forward.
"It was the end of last season when [Smith] decided to make a change [to Bowman]," Jennings said today. "He kind of pointed out a couple of opportunities that I missed out there and I kind of understood where he was coming from. I thought I was playing good football but I knew I was missing a whole lot of opportunities."
Jennings is a physical player who has played in the Tampa 2 system his entire career. With no better options on the open market this past offseason, the Bears chose to re-sign Jennings to a two-year deal.
"I knew if I had another opportunity to get another shot at this in Chicago – which is [where] I really wanted to be; I thought it was a good fit for me – I just wanted to make the best of it. I made a conscious effort to kind of go back to what I used to do."
Heading into OTAs this offseason, Jennings was told he would once again have to earn the starting gig.
"[Smith] just wanted me to raise my level of play, and I accepted the challenge," said Jennings. "That's what good coaching does. There's nothing threatening about it, they just want to make their player the best player he can be."
He and Kelvin Hayden competed in a training camp battle for the starting spot opposite Charles Tillman, which Jennings won easily. In fact, he was arguably the most-impressive player on the roster during the team's three weeks in Bourbonnais. That carried over to the regular season. Jennings currently leads the league with four interceptions through the first three games. His four picks already are double his previous single-season high (2).
"[The success] lets you know how much hard work can pay off. I'm a living testimony to it," Jennings said. "With the addition of a lot of leadership that we've added to this team with Brandon Marshall and I've seen what he's doing and the aspect he's bringing to this team. A lot of guys are feeding off his, not just me. Guys are coming out there early on the practice field, staying late, watching film and it's paying off. We just have to keep it going. Like I said I'm a living testimony that hard work pays off and I just want to keep it going."
In addition to his four picks, Jennings has also tipped two passes that ended up interceptions. The second tip came yesterday on a Sam Bradford pass attempt that resulted in a pick-six by Major Wright, sealing Chicago's 23-6 victory. Essentially, Jennings has single-handedly been the cause of all six of the team's interceptions so far this season.
At 28 years old (he'll be 29 on Christmas Eve), Jennings is a making a late-career run at his first Pro Bowl appearance. It's a rare feat in the NFL, as most players begin to decline, and not improve, as they approach 30 years old.
"It's hard to say exactly why [he's improved]," Smith said after yesterday's game. "I just know that if you want a player to get better and you ask him to and give him things to work on and you have the ability to do it, I think it's a commitment you have to make. Tim made a commitment to improve his game."
The area of his game in which he has improved the most is his hands. In the past few seasons, numerous passes have bounced of Jennings' hands. Many of those drops would have resulted in game-changing interceptions. This year, he has gobbled up almost everything that has been thrown his way.
"Last year he had a lot of opportunities with his hands on balls and he didn't make the play," said Smith. "You see him working on that trait every day."
Jennings said a finger injury last season hindered his ability to pull in picks.
"Honestly, I had a finger issue," said Jennings. "But I don't really look at it as an excuse of why I was dropping those passes. In the offseason it had a chance to heal up. I think that I'm not bothered by it too much and I'm able to concentrate on catching the ball, not worry about hitting this finger. I'm just able to go out there and play football, make some plays on the ball."
Chicago's six interceptions currently rank second in the league, while the pass defense ranks seventh overall. Much of that success is due to the defensive line, which leads the NFL in sacks (14.0). But a whole lot of that credit should also go to Jennings, who has been the team's biggest playmaker on defense so far this season.
If this keeps up, opposing offenses might stop throwing his way, the prospect of which doesn't sit well with Jennings.
"I hope not," he said. "I want to continue to try to make some plays and make some plays on the ball. The most opportunities I can get, hopefully the number can increase. I'm not looking forward to that."
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.