Putting the Reno in Geno

Which Geno Smith will show up Sunday at Lambeau Field? The one on paper who is mistake-prone? Or the one who has been talked up this week as much improved? It seems like a 50/50 proposition. Either way, against the Jets second-year quarterback, the Packers might have a good chance to end an anemic streak.

The Green Bay Packers’ safeties were oh-so close in the season opener to ending their lengthy streak without an interception.

Rookie HaHa Clinton-Dix was in prime position to pluck a deep pass from Russell Wilson but instead dropped it, meaning the safety group heads into Sunday’s game against the New York Jets without a pick in 24 straight games (including the postseason).

Perhaps Geno Smith can help end that.

On paper, the Jets’ quarterback was a mistake waiting to happen for most of his 2013 rookie season. Only three quarterbacks in the league had more combined interceptions and fumbles than Smith’s 29, and at 4.7 percent, he had the highest interception percentage among all regular starting quarterbacks in the AFC.

The talk this week, however, has been more about the strides Smith has made beginning his second season.

“From watching him last year, he definitely improved a lot,” said Packers cornerback Casey Hayward. “He’s more patient in the pocket. He can make all the throws. Every game, you get better, and you can see that he’s getting better at it. You can take a 10-year guy, and they take one little thing to get better at each week. I think that’s what he’s doing. You can see it in his film.”

Smith was 23 of 28 (with one throwaway) in the season opener against the Oakland Raiders, good for an 82.1 percent completion rate. Last year, his accuracy was a major issue. He had a four-game stretch from Weeks 9-13 in which he completed just 29 of 74 passes (39.2 percent) with no touchdowns, six interceptions and 10 sacks. Over the last four games, however, he rebounded to complete 58.6 percent of his passes with four touchdowns, two interceptions and just five sacks.

“The last month of the season, he actually had the second-highest quarterback rating in the league, but nobody talks about it because I think he was last up until that point,” said Jets coach Rex Ryan. “He might have ended up last (in passer rating), but he came a million miles. It starts with his poise, his confidence, the fact that he really knows this offense. He studies defensive coordinators, studies defenses and he’s confident. He can make all the throws. The young man’s a very talented player. His offseason, I think he improved as much as anybody that I’ve been around in his preparation, work and even physically. He wanted to add some strength and he did that in the offseason as well.”

Smith credits his improved footwork and timing in the offense. He also has a new weapon on the outside in Eric Decker, a wide receiver who came over in free agency from the Denver Broncos, not to mention a strong group of running backs including speedy newcomer Chris Johnson.

“I see a young, athletic, competitive quarterback,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. “I think he plays with good energy. He can throw it. That’s always been evident with him coming out of West Virginia. I think he’s done a lot of good things. (Offensive coordinator) Marty Mornhinweg obviously is doing a lot of things conceptually. So, he’ll be a challenge for us.”

Interceptions were a challenge for the Packers’ defense a year ago. Even as one of the league’s best at taking it away through the air under defensive coordinator Dom Capers, Packers defensive backs had just two interceptions over the first nine games in 2013. Then Tramon Williams got one off league-leader Eli Manning (27 interceptions in 2013) in game No. 10, beginning a stretch of nine picks over the next eight games (including a playoff game).

Along with Clinton-Dix’s missed chance in the Sept. 4 opener at Seattle, linebacker Brad Jones dropped a potential interception off a tipped ball. The Packers had ended last season with at least one interception in six straight games.

Despite Smith’s promising opener, there were signs of the “old” Geno against the Raiders, which should have the Packers’ defense licking its chops on Sunday. Former Packers’defensive back Charles Woodson made a diving interception of a Smith pass, and Smith fumbled twice. The fumble he lost came in the red zone, as well as 19-yard sack loss in the fourth quarter that moved the Jets out of field goal range.

Morgan Burnett was the last Packers safety to record an interception. He actually had two off Christian Ponder in a Dec. 2, 2012, game at Lambeau Field in which the Packers beat the Minnesota Vikings 23-14. He offered this strategy against Smith:

“With guys like (Geno Smith) you’ve just got to stick to your coverage a little longer. He’s got the capability to extend plays. So, it’s just going to take a team effort.”


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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com


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