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Rodgers, Packers offer new age test

Jeromy Miles

Here comes Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the NFL's reigning MVP with that blurry Madden '13 release and his bottomless brigade of receivers and tight ends that yanks the heart out of man-to-man defenses and rips the seams out of zones.

He won't work all that long Thursday in the 7 p.m. preseason game at Paul Brown Stadium (11:35 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12), but what the Packers are doing in Green Bay (and what the Patriots are doing in New England and what the Saints are doing in New Orleans) has had such a long-term impact in the league that it is sending top 10 defensive coordinators like Cincinnati's Mike Zimmer back to the drawing board.

Especially at the safety position, which is no longer land of the free and home of the brave. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has been bristling for years about identifying his safeties as "free" and "strong," insisting that they both have to be able to cover the pass nowadays.

And if you watched the Bengals slow down the Falcons arsenal of slants and screens last Thursday night in Atlanta, they certainly also have to tackle.

"He's a safety," is how Lewis likes to leave it.  

Here is the way Bengals secondary coach Mark Carrier describes it after he played in the '90s as pretty much a pure free safety on the back line.

"The players are bigger and the pads are smaller. I was smaller and the pads were bigger," said Carrier, who played at just 190 pounds.

Indeed, with starting left cornerback Nate Clements lining up enough at safety this camp that he says his teammates are calling him "The utility man," Zimmer could have some newfangled packages opposite safety Reggie Nelson.

The 230-pound Taylor Mays, the current starter with Nelson at safety, is emerging as a powerful force against the run. He's an old school strong safety who looks to be holding up in the new age pass game. But Rodgers is going to give him a new standard. 

And then there's the guy battling with Mays for the job, special teams ace Jeromy Miles. It is offenses like the one purring with Rodgers that have yielded defenders like the smart, athletic Miles, a 6-2, 210-pounder heading into his third season.

Maybe even five to seven years ago, Miles would have been viewed as a tweener. Maybe a little too small for strong to fill like a linebacker in the running game and maybe a step too slow at free to help the corners running in the back end.

But in this era, he's got a pretty good combination. In Atlanta, he spiced his six tackles with an end-zone interception.

Maybe nowadays you do need a safety that has a kinesiology degree after going through the University of Massachusetts with a 3.4 grade point average.

"The study of human motion and applying physics to how the body functions," Miles explained one day this week before practice.

Or maybe you need a guy that went through Winslow High School in New Jersey with a 4.0 while making chemistry his favorite subject to decipher the bevy of formations at Rodgers's fingertips.

"Good memory; and I applied myself," Miles said.

Or maybe you just need a guy that does what the teacher tells him.

"I was just telling Coach Zimmer this," Miles said. "I'm getting more comfortable being around him and the system. I feel like when you're comfortable, you play fast. I just feel like my comfort level is so high that I'm starting to play a lot faster."

Which is of no surprise to special teams coach Darrin Simmons. After Miles spent his first 10 games as a rookie on the practice squad, he played in the last six games of the 2010 season on special teams and rung up five tackles. He had a team-high 15 last season after making the roster out of the gate, giving him 20 special teams tackles in 22 games.

Now it looks like he's going to be able to help some at safety.

"His intelligence, his big-picture awareness," Simmons said, ticking off Miles's strengths. "He's very, very intelligent. His football IQ is very high. His effort and preparation are also very high. He may get fooled once, but not twice."

Miles was smart enough to watch everything Chris Crocker did in 2010 and 2011. The kind of hybrid safety Lewis and Zimmer are talking about, Crocker was able to play slot corner while also knocking out Santonio Holmes cold. So Miles put together a DVD. "The Best of Crocker."

"This summer I went back and broke down a lot of film of the positive things he did when he was in coverage," Miles said. "And in his alignments. Just being in the right alignments, making sure you're lined up where you need to be."

Miles slipped through the draft probably because he transferred from Navy after his freshman season and fell off the radar. Despite making 11 starts for a bowl team, Miles didn't like the academy life.

"I felt like I wanted to experience the regular college life and thought I was missing out," Miles said.

And he didn't want to sit out a year while transferring to another Division I school. So he opted for UMass, once known for Dr. J., now known for Victor Cruz, but Miles is starting to make a name, too.

The Bengals uncovered Miles in tiny Amherst, Mass., because of his speed and size ratio, as well as being a sure tackler. He was fast enough to be a part of three New Jersey state track championships in high school and it has translated to the NFL, where, like, Crocker, he has practiced some at cornerback in the nickel package. Enough that it gives him good practice for facing tight ends in games.

"If we used him at corner, it would have to be in a real pinch. I would have to be out there with him," Carrier said. "But it shows you how comfortable he is with the system and his growing knowledge of the defense."

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