At the safety spot alongside Morgan Burnett in the No. 1 defense, the status quo appears to be the winner after three weeks of practice and one preseason game. M.D. Jennings (third year) and Jerron McMillian (second year) are taking about equal snaps – just like they did last season.
"They both are different in their skill-set," said head coach Mike McCarthy. "I think, No. 1, you want competition at every position, but I think it really stands out on defense when I look at all the positions on defense. Not only do you have the competition, but you have different players with different body types and different styles and different skill-sets and, as a coordinator, it gives you the ability to be more creative and try to create more responsibility as far as matchups and to try to tailor things to what they do best. I feel very good about the camp that they're having. … The safeties are a lot like the whole defense. We've got very good depth over there."
Last summer's release of veteran Charlie Peprah, who the Packers won a Super Bowl with in 2010, and Charles Woodson's broken collarbone in Week 7 last season opened the door at safety earlier than expected for Jennings and McMillian. Each young player got invaluable game experience. Though Jennings was the starter in the Packers' base defense, McMillian was equally important in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' sub packages. By season's end, the total defensive snaps for each player were about the same. (Including the postseason, Jennings had 616 defensive snaps to McMillian's 614, according to ProFootballFocus.com.)
While McMillian started stronger in 2012, Jennings finished stronger. Both played in all 18 games, with Jennings being credited 10 starts after Woodson's injury. Jennings returned an interception 72 yards for a touchdown at Detroit on Nov. 18 off a pass that had been bobbled into the air by tight end Tony Scheffler. He also wrestled Golden Tate for the infamous Hail Mary touchdown at Seattle on Sept. 24 and is perhaps most widely known for the play.
The challenge for the Packers' coaches with their second safety spot boils down to not necessarily who plays better, but where and in what situations. That likely will determine playing time.
"Both of those guys will play a lot of football for us regardless of who's the starting safety alongside Morgan in our ‘Okie' (base) package and nickel," said safeties coach Darren Perry. "But I think both of those guys have proven they can play at this level. Still, they have to continue to grow. I think they have a really good understanding of what we're asking them to do and how the position works and, as a result, their movement is so much more clean or so much more direct in what they're doing and you want to see it show up in the games. I think we got off to a good start Friday night (against the Arizona Cardinals) and those guys have to continue to grow starting this Saturday in St. Louis."
During Thursday's practice, which was basically a glorified walk-through in preparation for Saturday night's game against the Rams, McMillian took most of his snaps during team portions in the dime position, a linebacker/safety hybrid role closer to the line of scrimmage. Jennings was in his familiar role as a deep safety covering half of the field.
"Both of those guys fit well in terms of what we do here," said Perry. "Both of them can cover. M.D. is built a little differently than J (Jerron). J's probably a little bit more explosive in the hitting aspect and that's because of his body makeup — he's a little shorter and can get underneath people so he has natural leverage. M.D.'s a little taller, a little leggy, and so he doesn't play as low as Jerron so sometimes his hits aren't as impactful but he has range. Both of them can run. Very smart kids. They really do what you ask them to do. They give great effort."
With undrafted rookie Chris Banjo grabbing some attention at safety in last Friday night's 17-0 preseason loss to the Cardinals, there was little separation at safety between McMillian (31 snaps) and Jennings (29 snaps).
"M.D. didn't get many opportunities," said Perry. "J had a couple pass breakups and he was probably involved a little bit more than M.D. but both of those guys have the ability to make plays. The big thing with both of those guys is to be consistent — when things happen in the game in the open field, being consistent tacklers. When they have the opportunity to make plays on the ball, they have to do that. The mental part of it and the youth are no excuses because they've got that part down, and now it's the battle to go out there and find it and having it show up on game day."
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org