GREEN BAY – Greg Jennings didn’t have a problem with anything Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall had said. In fact, the Green Bay Packers wide receiver was basically calling Marshall a genius Thursday.
Marshall had made headlines one day earlier when he went off on the Packers during his weekly media availability at Halas Hall. Among Marshall’s most colorful quotes were him saying, “I really dislike the Green Bay Packers and their players,” that the game was “personal” to him, that he would play it “like it’s my last game” and “I've never felt this strong in sports – versus any team or any players.”
But it was something Marshall said later that Jennings found brilliant: Marshall’s attempt to bait the Packers into matching their cornerbacks up with him man-to-man.
Marshall said Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers “did an amazing job of game-planning me” in the teams’ Sept. 13 meeting, in which Marshall caught only two passes for 24 yards and quarterback Jay Cutler threw four interceptions in a 23-10 Packers victory.
Then, Marshall dared the Packers to try to cover him one-on-one in Sunday’s rematch at Soldier Field.
“I didn't beat double or triple coverage or whatever they were throwing at us,” Marshall said of the first meeting. “I take it as a slap in my face when guys talk about my lack of ability to do something against them when they have help all over the place. I'm looking forward to one-on-one coverage. Hopefully, those guys in games like this may go to their coach and say, `Let me have him. I want Brandon Marshall. I want to stop Brandon Marshall. Let me have him one-on-one, press coverage.' And we'll see what happens."
Speaking at his locker Thursday, Jennings had answered roughly 3 minutes worth of questions before bringing up -- unprompted – what Marshall had said.
“I think he’s smart for saying whatever he said. So I’m going to be smart, too,” Jennings said, a wide smile stretching across his face. “Man, I wish the Bears would play us one-on-one and man-to-man.
“I think he’s smart. That reverse psychology, I think it’s pretty impressive. So yeah, man, the Bears are always playing Cover-2. I think they’re scared not to play Cover-2.”
Then, Jennings laughed. “Hey,” he added. “I’ll give it a shot.”
The Cover-2 defense has been like Kryptonite to the Packers’ previously unstoppable offense this season, using two deep safeties to take away big plays and prevent the group from replicating last year’s success, when the Packers scored 560 points (second-most in NFL history) and quarterback Aaron Rodgers won the NFL MVP by throwing 45 touchdown passes and only six interceptions.
Later, Jennings called Marshall’s statements a “tactic. ‘Play me one-on-one.’ What receiver doesn’t want you to play man-to-man coverage the entire game?”
“I mean, your pride wants to say, ‘I can guard you man-to-man,’ but why do it? Why do it when you don’t have to? Hey, that’s why we’re a team. We help one another.”
Here’s the bad news for Marshall: There’s no way on God’s green earth that Capers is going to play one-on-one, man-to-man coverage on him on a down-in, down-out basis Sunday. Even with cornerback Tramon Williams’ ability to cover, he’s assured of having help over the top from a safety much of the time, as he frequently did against Detroit’s Calvin Johnson in the team’s two games against the Lions this year.
For while Capers’ scheme is certainly complex, one of the main tenets of the veteran coordinator’s approach is relatively simple: Stop the opponent’s best players.
Whether it’s Johnson, or Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, or, yes, Marshall, Capers formulates his defensive game plan each week by asking himself which offensive players could hurt his defense the most. While the results have varied over the last few years – as you might expect, since we’re talking about some of the NFL’s elite players – the approach has remained the same.
“When we look at an offense, we look at who their top two or three producers are,” Capers explained recently. (The Packers make their defensive coaches available on Fridays, so Capers did not address reporters Thursday.) “And (we ask), what do you have to try to do to limit their production? (We’re) going to say, ‘Well, this is where we have to start.’
“What do you have to take away to win the game?”
For the Bears, it’s obviously Marshall.
Entering Sunday’s game, Marshall has caught 101 passes for 1,342 yards and nine touchdowns, while Chicago’s next three wide receivers have a combined 65 receptions for 748 yards and five touchdowns: Earl Bennett has 23 receptions for 250 yards and one TD; Devin Hester has 23 receptions for 242 yards and one TD, and rookie Alshon Jeffery has 19 receptions for 256 yards and three TDs.
Marshall has had seven 100-yard games this season and has caught at least 10 passes in his last three games. The only other team to shut him down was San Francisco, which held Marshall to two receptions for 21 yards on Nov. 19, when Cutler missed the game with a concussion and backup Jason Campbell started in his place.
According to Packers safety Morgan Burnett, Capers’ weekly Wednesday presentation to the defense begins with a portion of the Power Point presentation listing the opposing team’s top players. Even though it’s self-evident, the emphasis helps remind his players of how important it will be to contain those top targets. This Wednesday, the discussion predictably began with Marshall, Burnett said.
“You know what they like to do, you watch the film, you know who the go-to guy is,” Burnett said Thursday. “At the same time, that doesn’t mean you just ignore everyone else.
“Of course, Brandon Marshall is the go-to guy. But you still have (other) playmakers in Devin Hester, you have the rookie Alshon Jeffery, who’s a big receiver, and then you have (running back) Matt Forte, who’s a threat in the running game and the passing game.
“It’s obvious that you have to (stop Marshall). But at the same time, you have to do your job. If it’s your job to stay on this half of the field, you can’t be looking at the other half and saying, ‘Oh, he’s over there.’”
Before their Week 2 meeting this season, the only other time the Packers had encountered Marshall twice, although only once in their current defensive scheme. In 2010, when Marshall was with the Miami Dolphins, he was targeted 17 times and caught 10 passes for 127 yards in a 23-20 overtime victory. In 2007, when the Packers were playing their old 4-3 scheme and Marshall was with Denver, he had three receptions for 74 yards in the Packers’ 19-13 victory over the Broncos.
“He’s a talented guy,” Capers said before the teams’ first meeting this season. “He uses his size and his strength and he’s one of those big physical receivers (who) tries to seek contact and uses that to create separation. And he’s got a big wingspan. So he’s a big target for Cutler, and they’ve played together so they obviously have some chemistry working together.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.