Green Bay Packers safety Jerron McMillian (22) during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field on Thursday. / Lukas Keapproth/Press-Gazette Media
Green Bay Packers safety M.D. Jennings during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field on Thursday. / Lukas Keapproth/Press-Gazette Media
Neither M.D. Jennings nor Jerron McMillian has distinguished himself as the leader for the Green Bay Packers’ open job at starting safety a week into training camp.
But Dom Capers, the Packers’ defensive coordinator, insists the Packers will be better off this year than last no matter which wins the job. Last season, Jennings was the starter when Charles Woodson missed the final nine regular-season games because of a broken collarbone.
“This time last year (Jennings and McMillian) hadn’t played a snap for us,” Capers said. “Now both have played in the vicinity of 600 snaps. That in itself is going to enable them to be significantly better in their understanding of the defense, their abilty to decipher plays and get where they need to be. I like both guys.”
Jennings and McMillian have been sharing snaps relatively evenly with the No. 1 defense — Jennings probably is getting a little more work there because McMillian also plays in the slot coverage role in the dime.
Regardless of their timed speed, Jennings is more of a fluid-running center fielder with possibly a little more range in coverage. He also plays a lower-risk game. McMillian is bigger (203 pounds to Jennings’ 195), and more dynamic, physical and aggressive.
“I like Jennings back in the deep middle of the field, roaming the field and playing halves,” Capers said. “McMillian can do that, but McMillian in our (dime) packages is more likely to play up near the line of scrimmage.”
McMillian has tipped a couple passes from his slot position in the dime during team periods, but neither of the two has stood out as a playmaker with interceptions or defended passes downfield in the first week of camp. The other starter, Morgan Burnett, has shown up more often that way with one interception and several near picks or breakups.
But safeties coach Darren Perry said that Jennings and McMillian have been sound making defensive calls, and that their lack of interceptions and knock downs thus far doesn’t mean they haven’t been making plays.
“I beg to differ,” he said. “Jerron had his best day two days ago, he was playing a little bit of the dime. He had a good play (Thursday) in the half field. So those guys, sometimes they’re doing their job when they’re not being exposed and they’re taking (quarterback reads) away.
“You’re not seeing a lot of balls going over the top. A lot of that is those guys being in good position. That’s one of the things we’re big on, making teams go a long way, taking away the deep throw.”
Jennings’ edge is his time in the Packers’ defense — three years as opposed to McMillian’s two.
Jennings was strictly a special teams player as a rookie after making the team undrafted out of Arkansas State in 2011. Last season, he graduated to 603 snaps at safety, playoffs included.
“The quickest way to endear yourself to your teammates is go out there and make plays, have some impact plays to help us win,” Perry said. “Once you do that, whether it’s on special teams or the defensive side of the ball, guys start to bring you in and accept you a little more. That’s what happened last year, and I think (Jennings’) confidence has grown. Now he realizes that he belongs in this league.”
McMillian’s edge in physical talent might win out, though, especially if he tackles well against the run in the preseason. He would bring a harder hitting, more aggressive dimension to the defense than Jennings.
“He’s got that (ability to hit),” Perry said. “If we can get him to wrap up, I think he can be pretty good. That’s the one thing you find out in this league, you can’t hit big backs and tight ends and expect them to go down. You have to put’em on the ground, and that involves wrapping up. That’s one thing we talk to him from an individual standpoint.”
An added element to the competition is McMillian’s possible role in the dime. Before last season, Capers rarely played dime (six defensive backs) and usually opted to go nickel (five defensive backs) even on obvious passing downs. In 2012 he started using the dime more often to better match up with spread offenses, and that trend likely will continue this year.
Last season McMillian played 591 snaps, playoffs included. A position breakdown wasn’t available, but a good share of those snaps came as the dime back when injuries moved him up in the rotation. He’s been getting first-team snaps in that role in camp this year, and Capers appears to prefer McMillian in that spot instead of a cornerback because the safety is better than a linebacker in coverage and is more physical than a cornerback if in case the offense runs the ball or Capers’ calls a blitz.
“You need a physical guy there, you’re really playing linebacker,” Capers said of the second slot position in the dime. “So you better have a guy that can match up against tight ends and bigger backs, and still be able to play the run. Typically that guy is going to be involved in your blitz package more.”
If McMillian is the starter but also the second slot man in the dime, then Jennings will be the second safety when McMillian moves up in the dime.
“Both of those guys are going to play,” Perry said, “and as much nickel and as much dime as we play, they’re going to get very close to the same amount of reps.”
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