Caesars Head State Park in South Carolina annually witnesses the North American Hawk Migration where thousands of Broad-winged Hawks majestically fly over the Blue Ridge Escarpment to find a warmer home for the winter.
Another hawk hailing from South Carolina is Bears CB Tim Jennings, who this season has soared from a pedestrian starter to elite corner with his ball-hawking abilities that were fine-tuned through rigorous offseason training.
Ask fellow Bears CB D.J. Moore how Jennings secured the nickname “Hawk,” and Moore cracks a smile.
“The coaches came up with it to kind of build his morale in catching the ball,” explained Moore, who also grew up in South Carolina. “I mean, he’s really hawking it right now, so it’s good.”
Moore isn’t even close to exaggerating. In his seventh NFL season, the diminutive Jennings (generously listed at 5-8, 185 pounds) has lived up to that nickname and more through five games by already nabbing a career-high four interceptions and tying his career-best in passes defended (10).
His play was so hot that Jennings’ razor-sharp talons snagged NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors for September.
“Winning Player of the Month is an honor,” Jennings said. “It goes with the team having success and recognizing all the hard work that I’m trying to put into the game. My first few games were great for me, but the tough part is keeping it up. It’s a long season. I just have to continue to keep working at it to get better.”
What makes this season’s performance so surprising is that Jennings, who played four unremarkable seasons in Indianapolis after being a 2006 second-round pick of the Colts, never had more than two interceptions in a season. Plus, he had struggled a bit in 2011.
Jennings, who turns 29 on Dec. 24, was in the final year of his contract in ’11 when he was benched for Zack Bowman in the Week 16 matchup against the Packers. Jennings regained his starting job in Week 17 against the Vikings, and created a big impression with six tackles and an interception.
The Bears decided to keep Jennings over Bowman — ironically, the team re-signed Bowman earlier this week after he had failed to make the Vikings’ roster — but only signed him (to a two-year, $6.6 million deal) after failing to land heavily pursued Cortland Finnegan in free agency.
“It was tough being a starter and then being told to give Zack a chance, but that’s the competitor in me,” said Jennings, who made it clear that he only wanted to sign with Chicago. “Zack is a good guy. I respect him to the utmost respect. He is a good football player. It’s a tough situation, but we both know this is a business, and you have to learn and grow from it. I wanted to be here, so I didn’t want it to hang over my head too much.
“I got the opportunity to go back out there, and I was able to perform in the Minnesota game. I think it worked out, and coming into this year, they signed me back for another two years. I felt good about the decision and it took that weight off my shoulders. I was just able to come out here and compete to get better.”
He eagerly wanted to prove he deserved to keep his starting spot, so he intensely worked on his game in the offseason to make sure he caught the balls coming his way.
“I’ve been working at it since OTAs,” Jennings said. “I just wanted to go out there, get to the Jugs machine and work on my hands, get my confidence back in my hands. Being able to catch the football. I wanted to continue to stay healthy, be healthy, make sure my legs were right. I knew it was going to be a long season, so I felt like if I had good legs, confidence in my hands and ability, I knew I would go out there and compete.”
Jennings, who had 10 career interceptions at the University of Georgia, said he feels as if he’s at his physical peak and highest level of anticipation this season — important ingredients required for a position relying on “instinctual reaction.” Bears defensive backs coach Jon Hoke has noticed this and is pleased that Jennings’ hard work is paying off.
“Tim deserves all the credit,” Hoke said. “He’s been working his butt off. He’s out there working on catching the ball and putting himself in position to make those plays. He’s got a lot of confidence right now. Confidence just doesn’t happen. You’ve got to work and feel confident that you did all that work when you go out there.”
Hoke said the Georgia alum fits the Bears’ cover-2 system very well and makes a positive difference in the defense, something head coach Lovie Smith agrees with, as well.
“I think he’s a good cover-2 corner, but he’s also been a good man-coverage guy, a good zone-coverage guy,” Smith said. “He’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do. He’s been a good all-around corner. If you think cover-2 a little bit, a cornerback’s role is to play the run and be a little physical with the receivers. He does a great job with all that.”
Jennings isn’t just making plays by himself. His strong play is benefiting others as well. He deflected a couple balls that became interceptions to SS Major Wright and batted another one to FS Chris Conte. Wright returned one of those picks for a 45-yard touchdown against the Rams.
Jennings snagged four picks the first three games, but even if he’s not making picks or pass deflections, he is playing a key role in a dominant Chicago defense that has scored five touchdowns and is tied for the league lead with 17 takeaways. He didn’t produce a turnover against the Cowboys and Jaguars, but his lockdown coverage forced QBs Tony Romo and Blaine Gabbert to hold on to the ball longer, resulting in his teammates tallying four sacks and seven interceptions.
“Rush-cover go hand-and-hand, so to have guys in the secondary playing lights out with interceptions and making plays with the ball, it’s going to cause the quarterback to hold it,” said DE Israel Idonije, who has 2½ of the Bears’ 18 sacks. “Up front, we’ve got to get to the quarterback.”
Part of the reason Jennings believes he is doing a lot better is playing alongside and learning from Pro Bowl CB Charles Tillman for three years.
“You learn a lot from that guy, just the fact that he comes out here to work everyday,” Jennings explained. “He doesn’t complain about anything. Even though he’s been in the game for a while, he’s still honing his craft. Some of the things he works on (are) because he knows he has to get better. I kind of take that all in with his knack for the ball, the way he approaches the ball and knowing what play is coming.”
Both Hoke and Moore said Jennings hasn’t made a huge jump in his play because he has always been in good position to make them. However, they point out Jennings is now catching balls that he used to drop.
“It’s not really that hard being elite — you’ve just got to make the plays,” Moore said. “Whenever the plays come to your numbers, you’ve got to make them. That’s pretty much just it. You’ll see a lot of corners just miss the ball, so if you catch the ball, that’s the difference from elite to non-elite a lot of times. You’ve got to catch the ball on defense.”
For Jennings to continue his high level of play, Hoke maintains he needs to keep preparing as extensively as he has been doing.
“He’s been a big part of our defense,” Hoke said. “He is leading the NFL in interceptions. We are a defense that thrives on takeaways. That’s big for our defense. The more takeaways we get, the better feeling we get of possibly winning the game.”
Jennings’ teammates and coaches all love the hard work, discipline, and reliability he brings to the team in practice and during the game.
“He’s been in the league for seven years now and this is by far his best year even if he doesn’t even play anymore this season,” Moore said. “To see a guy just consistently stick with it, to even know that he could do it is inspiring. He was on another team where he played and didn’t play. He came here, and then they liked him and didn’t like him. Now, he’s fighting through it. He’s really our No. 1 best cover corner on this team.”