No Pain, Big Gain

If anyone can flip a switch it's Mike McKenzie. From a media perspective he seems as laid-back as they come. He's soft-spoken, modest, and often politely declines interview requests in the locker room. He simply doesn't want to be in the limelight.

That all changes on game day. On the field McKenzie can be seen getting into opponents' faces, practically begging officials to toss a flag on him for taunting. He hits hard and lets opponents know it by staring them down while they're on the ground.

"He's a bubbly, fiery and passionate guy on the field," says defensive backs coach Bob Slowik.

All for the good of the Green Bay Packers. McKenzie is back. He's healthy for the first time since his rookie season in 1999 and has turned into the Packers' shut-down cornerback.

The Packers have built a 7-3 record this season due to a number of factors, and McKenzie's play at left cornerback has been big. He leads the Packers with 16 passes defensed. He is eighth on the team with 40 tackles and has one interception through Green Bay's Thanksgiving Day win over the Detroit Lions.

McKenzie, 25, is quietly having his best season as a Packer and is pushing for a spot on the NFC Pro Bowl team. He's loving every minute of it and is on pace to top his rookie season totals of six interceptions and 18 passes defensed.

McKenzie rarely speaks in the media, but he has made a few concessions as favors to teammates William Henderson and LeRoy Butler, who each have their own television shows in Green Bay and Milwaukee each week.

"I have so much fun when I'm out there on the field," McKenzie recently told the audience on a local Green Bay television show. "I'm not a guy that's going to be trash-talking in the media and saying what I'm going to do. Our opponents usually take a good look at the tape so they know exactly what they're up against. Going into the game, I like to play with a lot of excitement. I like to get up in the folks' face. I do a lot of trash-talking out there on the field. The good thing is it's not really seen much."

The main reason for McKenzie's success is his health. Last year he had six tackles in the season opener against the New York Jets, but suffered a lateral cartilage tear in his left knee and missed the next five games. He played in four games after that but sprained his left knee and sat out another game.

"Every time he's on the field, he's productive," said safety Darren Sharper. "Injuries are something that are going to happen throughout your football career. Last year he hurt his knee. This year he's been healthy and that's a blessing for him. We need him out there. He has the ability to be a lock-down corner. He's taking care of himself, doing all the little extra things that you need to do to make that little injuries don't come up and bite you."

In training camp this year, Packers coaches were cautious with McKenzie, who sat out of a number of practices early on to rest his knee. Since then he has gradually returned to the form he displayed in '99.

Packers opponents have only thrown eight touchdowns against Green Bay's defense. One of those was against McKenzie during Detroit's late rally on Thanksgiving Day. Though McKenzie had Anderson covered, he missed in an attempt to swat the ball away and Anderson caught the ball in the back of the end zone.

Otherwise, McKenzie has allowed few big plays against him this season. Part of that is due to an improved pass rush that has combined for 37 sacks. And part is due to tight coverage by McKenzie and right cornerback Tyrone Williams.

"Their play has really jumped off the meter," said Sharper. "They're playing at an extremely high level and allowing us to do a lot of things. We're just letting them be out there by themselves and not having a guy be over the top or protecting them. As you can see, no one is really completing passes on our corners. It gives the coaches a lot of leeway to make the one-on-one blitz calls when our corners are locked up one on one."

McKenzie has started and finished every game this season at left cornerback. Last year he only started in eight games because of the injuries to his left knee. McKenzie played exceptionally well in early November.

He had five tackles against Tampa Bay on Nov. 4 in Green Bay's 21-20 win over the Bucs, including a stop near the end of the game on fullback Mike Alstott that forced the Bucs to punt. Allen Rossum took the punt back 55 yards for a touchdown and the Packers won. The next week against Chicago, he had a season-high four passes defensed and four tackles in the Packers 20-12 victory at Soldier Field.

"He's doing a heckuva a job," Slowik said. "He's stayed healthy, came back in shape and has worked hard, not only on the field but in the classroom. That has made a difference for him. He's practicing and preparing well."

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