Jennings carrying bigger role for Pack
When Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings learned that his wife, Nicole, extended a Thanksgiving dinner invitation to quarterback Aaron Rodgers last weekend, he wasn't sure that was such a good idea.
Sure, Jennings has caught 32 passes for 520 yards and six touchdowns from Rodgers over the past five games, including seven receptions for 152 yards and three touchdowns in last Sunday's 31-3 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. But Rodgers had also been the quarterback during Jennings' first five games, when he caught only 14 passes for 183 yards and three TDs.
''If it were up to me,'' Jennings said with a laugh, ''he'd still be eating by himself at home.''
Rodgers declined the invitation because he has dinner at his neighbor's house every Thanksgiving, but he's certainly glad to be on good terms with his No. 1 target again entering Sunday's game against NFC-leading Atlanta at the Georgia Dome. Especially with tight end Jermichael Finley on season-ending injured reserve with the knee injury he suffered Oct. 10 at Washington.
''He's been a lot friendlier to me lately, which is nice. And his wife has been e-mailing me inviting me over for dinner. It's a nice perk,'' Rodgers said, smiling. ''Greg's a great player. We knew at some point we were going to get it going. The last five weeks have had an opportunity to target him more and I have been threading the ball a little better to him and he has been making big plays.''
The tipping point in Jennings' season came in that Washington game, but not only because of Finley's injury.
Not long after that game, in which Jennings caught just two passes for 22 yards, Jennings complained publicly about his lack of opportunities. He admitted losing his composure on the sideline at FedEx Field. While Jennings wouldn't explain how he misbehaved, he would only say his behavior was ''out of character'' Rodgers lightheartedly described it this week as Jennings ''may have made some body language mistakes'' that day.
''The thing I love about Greg, whether he catches seven for 152 and three touchdowns or two for 22 early in the season, his demeanor and the way he practices doesn't change. I think that says a lot about him as a man,'' Rodgers said. ''He conducts himself as a professional. Obviously, he wants the ball but at the same time there was no drop-off in his commitment or the way he practiced.''
While Rodgers said after Sunday's game he's making a concerted effort to connect with Jennings, the coaches maintain that the passing game, which is based on Rodgers reading his progressions, hasn't been altered to get Jennings the ball more.
''Greg Jennings is a player who's been productive in our offense for going on five years. Hopefully we're cognizant of that as a staff,'' offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. ''But I would tell you in this system, the vast majority of plays have a starting point, a secondary point and a check-down, based on the coverage.
''From a coach's standpoint, one of the faults you get into is when you try to control it too much. You try to force the ball to somebody when it's not there. We're happy to see a guy have that kind of production. He really played well and I'm delighted that we did. But if everybody had four catches (each) and had the same type of production, that would be fine by me, as well.''
Added wide receivers coach Jimmy Robinson: ''He's had a number of opportunities in the last few weeks and certainly has made the most of them. He's on a little bit of a hot streak. We feel like that any one of our guys with those opportunities is going to have comparable results.
''Greg's a darned good football player. He's kind of hitting his stride right now where things are working pretty good. I don't think, if you went through our game plans, that you'd say 'Well, it looks like we're going to try to throw the ball to Greg a lot this week.'''
Rodgers said earlier in the season that Finley would be considered ''open'' even when he wasn't because of the matchup problems he presented. Finley caught 21 passes for 301 yards and a touchdown in the first four games before his injury against the Redskins on the Packers' second offensive snap. Jennings had 12 catches for 161 yards in that span.
During his five-game explosion, Jennings has caught more passes (32) than he had targeted for him (31) in the first five games.
''(Finley's injury) has definitely increased my productivity, but at the same time, when you have a caliber player like that, with that much of a distinctive advantage, you've got to go to it,'' Jennings said. ''I remember making a point last year, saying, 'Honestly, if I'm playing quarterback or if I'm O-coordinator, I'm splitting Jermichael out and I'm throwing to him every time until somebody stops him.' If that's the key to success, that's what we're going to do.
''We understand (as the wide receivers) what (Finley) brings to the table. At the same time, we all bring something important to the table; that's why we're here. It's just a matter of how you bring those pieces together, how you use them on game day. We are where we are right now, and we're just trying to keep it rolling.''
Whether the Falcons cover him one on one remains to be seen. Jennings said the Falcons prefer to play quarters coverage with two safeties deep, but he knows he has to be ready for the ball to come his way regularly.
''The way you approach the game is a little different when you know he's going to be coming to you, telling you in the huddle, 'Greg, look up.' There's certain ways you approach it versus when you're out there and you don't know when that next opportunity is going to be,'' Jennings said. ''Right now, we're trying to go out there and make sure we're on the same page as far as chemistry, and it helped jump-start the game last week. We're trying to piggyback off that and keep it going.''