Commentary

Inside the play: Tim Jennings

Here's how a big play came together from the perspective of the Bears CB

Updated: September 24, 2013, 4:00 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

Tim JenningsAP Photo/Jim PrischingTim Jennings knew the ball would be out quick because a blitz was coming, setting up his interception.
Plant and Drive. Tim Jennings makes it sound easy. And he has made it look easy in leading the NFL in interceptions with 16 since the start of last season. He says it often comes down to a solid foot plant on a typically unstable Soldier Field turf, and a strong leg drive as he makes his break. Broken down into elapsed time, there is obviously a little more to it than that.

Jennings, who had a league-leading and career-high nine interceptions last season, had his first interception in a Week 2 Bears' victory over the Minnesota Vikings, a 44-yard pick-six that gave his team a 21-14 lead with less than three minutes remaining until halftime.

He said any NFL cornerback could have done it and perhaps he is right given Christian Ponder's poor judgment on the play. But as Jennings narrated the roughly 38 seconds from the ball whistled dead on the previous play to the roughly 13 seconds from center snap to him nimbly half side-stepping, half-leaping over a prone Ponder into the end zone, it is clearly a master craftsman in action.

Jennings sat down with ESPNChicago.com to take us inside his helmet and show how an impact play comes together.

3:15 remaining in second quarter, first and 10 at the Vikings' 31: I'm never one to kind of get in the huddle. I get the call from the linebackers and safeties and then once I get the call, I get myself aligned and I see the formation that they're in and I start doing a process of elimination. What can I get in this certain coverage, in this certain blitz, in this certain man-to-man route? But it's always going to be a pass in my opinion.

3:10: We've got a blitz called and I know my guy [linebacker] D.J. [Williams] is ready to blitz. I see I have two receivers to my side so I'm happy I got two to one. I know I got a blitz coming on so I know the ball has to come out pretty quick.

3:08: I'm going to line up off [receiver Jerome Simpson, about 7 yards off the line of scrimmage] so I can see more. I stayed on top, but we're still three-deep so I can't let him get behind me. That was the defensive call we had.

3:04: I know everybody's going to do their job. D.J.'s supposed to blitz, so there's an extra guy that can't block. D.J. is about to come through scott-free until the back picks him up. The back picks him up kind of late but he puts pressure on the quarterback and once I see him put pressure on the quarterback, he's got to get rid of the ball.

3:00: The quarterback starts to look my way and once he starts to look my way, you see D.J. has pressure on the quarterback, so the ball has to come out quick. I'm reading the quarterback and I'm reading the guys in front of me, but I'm really looking at the quarterback. And once the quarterback starts looking my way and I know we have blitz, I know the ball is coming out of his hands.

2:58: I can't see [Ponder's] eyes but I can read his shoulders. So once his shoulders look like they're pointing my way, I know the ball is coming to my side. And as you see, his shoulders are pointing my way, he releases the ball, and I was able to get a good break.

[+] EnlargeTim Jennings
Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY SportsTim Jennings left Christian Ponder in his wake on the way to a 44-yard interception return for a touchdown.
It was raining out there that day and Solider Field doesn't have the best surface, so we're taught to make sure you get a good foot into the ground, know your surface. Know it's wet and slippery. Make sure you get a good plant-drive.

I got a good break on the surface, which allows me to come down and drive on the ball quicker than most. Usually, if you don't get a good break, it's a catch-tackle. We're always taught to stay on top but I was able to get a perfect break on this surface, and I was able to keep my feet and break on the ball cleanly. And I knew once I caught it, there was daylight in front of me.

It's basically an instinct at this point. You have to be able to react. Once you get that reaction, the instinct kicks in. You have to have good footing. You have to be able to plant-drive clean to make the right break because if you slip and he keeps running, that's a big play for them. My instincts kicked in that this is out of his hands, so now let me get a good plant and drive, break on the ball and make a play. And that's what I was able to do. I didn't slip, I didn't stumble.

Once the ball leaves his hands, it's pretty high percentage that if I get a good break, I can make a play on this ball. But if the ball doesn't leave his hands and I'm stopping, that's disaster.

Once I saw the ball thrown, that's when my eyes got big and I made sure I got a good break. And once I realized I was coming out of my break good, I knew. Now I just got to catch it.

It wasn't a hard catch but some of the easiest catches are the hardest ones to make. I just didn't want to think about it on this -- just make it a reaction and catch the ball.

2:56: Once I get the interception, we're taught to score. As soon as I catch the ball, our d-line turns around and everybody finds a block.

2:54: At this point, I'm looking to see how to set up my blockers. But I see that Minnesota is starting to pursue me, so they're starting to take an angle to come get me. But now I know I have blockers in front of me, so I set up my blocks and I stem inside. As I go inside, I'm slowing down Minnesota's team and as they're slowing down, that gives my blockers a chance to set an edge. And once I realize they set an edge, that's why they're on the outside, I'm able to go back on the outside and now there's nobody in front of me.

2:51: Once I realize [Ponder] is on the ground [at the goal line] and I'm still up, I'm thinking, 'OK, I just have to make sure the ball crosses the plane' and I was able to stay up and I was able to jump over him. But that was it. I just had to make one guy miss and I was able to make him miss.

I could have sidestepped him. That's basically what I kind of did. I wanted to make sure he cleared my feet, so I wanted to jump over him. You never want anybody at your legs so I wanted to just jump over or kind of sidestep him and make sure the ball crossed the plane.

Once that ball crosses the plane and I have control of it, it's kind of a touchdown already. And that's why I wanted to show it and bring it back into my body. So once it crossed the plane, I brought it back into my body and made sure it was a touchdown.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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