Fearless Finley returns to form
Edgar Bennett was not happy. He laughed about it on Thursday – one of those hearty belly-laughs of his – but at the time, the Green Bay Packers wide receivers coach and resident stickler was not amused.
The target of his discontent? None other than wide receiver James Jones – the same guy who would go on to post single-game career highs in receptions (11) and receiving yards (178) during the Packers’ 38-20 victory over the Washington Redskins Sunday.
The play that had Bennett perturbed – so much so that he might’ve been the only person on the sideline not cheering at the end of it – came with 10 minutes, 9 seconds left in the third quarter, with the Packers facing first-and-10 at their own 40-yard line.
Tight end Jermichael Finley, lined up next to left tackle David Bakhtiari on the line of scrimmage, ran a quick drag route and caught quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ pass just shy of the 40. When Redskins safety Reed Doughty dove at his ankles, Finley ran him over at the Packers’ 42. When cornerback Josh Wilson tried to hit him in the thigh at the Packers’ 49, Wilson bounced right off. And when safety Bacarri Rambo dove at Finley’s knees at the Washington 43, Finley spun off him and gained another 10 yards before Doughty and defensive end Kedric Golston finally got him down, 27 yards from where the play began.
All this was evident on the FOX Sports broadcast of the game, including the slo-mo replay of Finley doling out all that punishment on his would-be tacklers. What you couldn’t see on your 60-inch 1080p flatscreen was why Bennett was on the sideline yelling: Jones, like the rest of the Lambeau Field record crowd of 78,020, was watching, awestruck.
“I got in trouble for that, too. I was a fan for a minute when he was breaking all those tackles, watching,” Jones said Thursday. “You better believe EB got on me. ‘Go block somebody!’
“This week, you’ll see me trying to get somebody.”
There’s a good chance Jones will find himself in that same position this week against Cincinnati, as long as Finley keeps playing the way he has the first two weeks. He enters Sunday’s game at Paul Brown Stadium having caught 11 passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns. And it’s what Finley’s done with the ball in his hands that has been so impressive.
The reason why Bennett was able to laugh about it Thursday was twofold: For one, three plays later, Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson for a 15-yard touchdown and a 31-0 lead. And two, you couldn’t really blame Jones for staring. This was the Jermichael Finley that Jones wants to see all the time – the player he was before the 2010 season-ending knee injury that made him reticent every time he caught the ball and saw a defender in his path – and the Finley that Jones knows can dominate if he keeps this up.
“Unbelievable play. Unbelievable play,” Jones said. “Man, that’s the type of stuff he does. I tell him, ‘Man, you should never get tackled by one guy. You should always run through the first defender. I understand you’re big, they’re coming at your knees and stuff, that’s part of the game, but you should never get tackled by one guy.’ Once he instills that mindset every play – look out.
“Hopefully he continues to just have the confidence that he’s the best tight end in the game. Because when he puts it all together – confidence and his playmaking ability – there’s really nobody that’s truly better than him in the National Football League, in my opinion. I practice with the guy and I’ve seen him do some incredible things. (If) he continues to put it all together and goes out there and plays like he can play, he’s one of the best tight ends in the game.”
Finley, of course, knows this.
“It makes me a dangerous player when I don’t have to worry about somebody chopping me in my knee and me tearing something in my knee,” Finley explained. “I ain’t got no worries right now. From this point on, it’s going to be hard to hit me and bring me down, I promise you that.”
That’s how the 6-foot-5, 247-pound Finley played when he had his breakthrough season in 2009, but after suffering a season-ending knee injury against the Redskins on Oct. 10, 2010, Finley worried about his knee throughout the 2011 season. That season, like this season, was a contract year for him, and by his own admission, his concerns about being hit low altered the way he played. He’s also re-added bulk to his frame after slimming down before the 2011 season to play more like a wide receiver than a tight end.
According to STATS LLC, 116 of Finley’s 121 receiving yards this season have come after contact, ranking him seventh in YAC yardage in the league. No non-running back has gotten a greater percentage of his receiving yards after the catch than Finley, at 95.9 percent.
“That’s when he’s most effective – when he has the ball in his hands and has a little bit of cushion to work a defender and just decide whether he wants to lower his shoulder and be physical or outrun them,” Packers tight end coach Jerry Fontenot said. “He’s got a lot of weapons to use. The more that we can get him in those kinds of situations, then the more successful that this team can be.”
Finley started showing his willingness to get physical again last season, when he set a franchise record for receptions by a tight end with 61 catches for 667 yards. But it wasn’t until the second half of the season, especially on a 40-yard catch-and-run at Detroit on Nov. 18, when Finley truly looked like the knee wasn’t on his mind. Too many times before that game, he’d allowed one tackler to take him down.
That was definitely not the case against the Redskins last Sunday. Rodgers called the play “one of those plays that you are going to remember,” but he quickly added that the seeds had been planted in practice.
“He's just been carrying over the things he has been doing at practice to the game,” Rodgers explained on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com. “And I know we talked about this a few years back when I was feeling like James Jones was going to come on – and that was due to his play in practice.
“He was playing very well in practice making a lot of plays; doing a real good job in the meeting room being on the same page with me; being in the right place at the right time with his routes. And it was no surprise that he had kind of a jump in his performance. Everybody was saying, ‘What happened? Where did James Jones come from?’ I said, ‘The practice field.’ You play well in practice, you practice like you play, and it's going to show up in the game. And Jermichael has been practicing really, really well for that last year and a half – (so) it is no surprise he is playing so well on Sundays.”
For Finley, now it’s merely a matter of keeping the momentum that play created for him. His willingness to break tackles and lower his shoulder has allowed the Packers to utilize him more on the short, quick passes than longer throws down the seam, which are probably more hazardous to his health because of the safety lurking and waiting to hit him.
“The coaches see I’m getting 25 on a drag route, so why not nickel and dime them instead going down the seam and getting my head knocked off? I get to see the hits coming,” Finley said. “I’ll take anything they throw at me. If they want to throw me a seam 50 yards downfield, I’ll take that. If they want to throw me a drag route, I’ll convert that into a 25-yard run.”
Like Sunday’s, which even Finley admits came as a surprise.
“It was a crazy play. I’ve done it once before in high school, broke all of those tackles, but to do it in the NFL where every tackle is a violent tackle and a must tackle, it’s hard to do that in this league,” Finley said. “I was surprised that I was still on my feet as I was running the ball. I was like, this is crazy, and I kept spinning and dodging and whatever. I felt pretty good after that.
“I’m great right now. I feel awesome, better than I’ve ever felt.”
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.