Play of Packers' young cornerbacks helps ease concerns
A Great article from of the Journal Sentinel
Damarious Randall made an interception of Aaron Rodgers that had the Packers quarterback fuming.
- — The interception that made the reigning most valuable player lose his cool happened during the fourth practice of training camp, during the 2-minute drill, during a drive toward the south end zone that was certain to be forgotten by the end of the week, if not sooner.
But then the reigning MVP broke into an angry jog, careened 20 yards downfield and unleashed a hailstorm of profanity upon the poor official who pulled his arms to his chest to signal rookie cornerback Damarious Randall had, in fact, completed the catch. This was no longer a ho-hum interception.
Rather, the play by Randall, whom the Green Bay Packers drafted in the first round in April, typified a hellacious beginning to training camp in which cornerbacks across the board played bullishly aggressive football. Pass deflections soared as physicality spiked, and through five days of training camp Aaron Rodgers had already thrown four interceptions in 11-on-11 action.
"I think you've seen as you watched practice a lot of contested balls out there," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "We've had some outstanding plays where guys have come down with the football, yet there's a lot of plays where we've had broken up passes. Guys have been close, I think, in coverage."
Apprehension about the cornerback position percolated during the offseason when both Tramon Williams, a starter on the outside, and Davon House, who was often used in dime packages, departed via free agency. Left on the roster were Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, Micah Hyde, Demetri Goodson and plenty of valid questions.
The Packers responded by using their first two draft picks on defensive backs: Randall in the first round, Quinten Rollins in the second.
"We've got some young guys that we're trying to get as many reps as we can," Capers said. "I think they're competing well."
The positive early returns continue to soothe concerns about what was considered the weakest portion of a defense that brings back nine starters. A sextet of players — Shields, Hayward, Hyde, Randall, Rollins and undrafted free agent LaDarius Gunter — have separated themselves from the pack.
Shields, 27, is firmly entrenched atop the depth chart and anchors the group from his familiar position on the outside. He is joined on the flanks by Hayward, 25, who is moving to the perimeter after playing most of his career in the slot.
The transition requires Hayward to rewire his thought process, according to cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr., though he fails to understand why that has invited questions about Hayward's ability to play the position. Slot corners, Whitt said, bear similar responsibilities to linebackers in terms of understanding gap fits, making assertive play calls and moving instinctively. While outside corners need only answer two simple questions: Can I listen to the call from the safeties? Can I cover this guy?
Whitt and the Packers believe Hayward can do both. His string of pass breakups, including a tipped ball intercepted by safety Morgan Burnett, could be premature signs that they are right.
"I have no issue with Casey playing outside at all," Whitt said.
Added Burnett: "Casey is a football player. He's going to compete wherever you put him. Inside or outside he's going to make plays."
What the franchise may not have believed is that a pair of rookies would also contribute on the outside, which is exactly what Randall and Gunter have done through the first five practices. Rollins, the Packers' second-round pick from Miami (Ohio), began training camp on the non-football injury list after suffering a pulled hamstring over the summer. He returned to practice earlier this week.
Although he played safety at Arizona State, Randall adapted quickly to the position change during OTAs and gave the secondary a jolt of athleticism. He adjusted so well to the outside position that coaches are trusting him to play opposite Shields in dime packages, allowing Hayward and Hyde to man the slots.
Randall's profanity-inducing interception of Rodgers, hauled in after blanketing Davante Adams in the end zone, remains one of the highlights of training camp.
"We're expecting him to make those plays that he made against Aaron," Whitt said. "When you're drafted (in the first round), you're supposed to make those type of plays."
Which is to say someone like Gunter, an undrafted free agent from Miami, is not supposed to make those plays, especially against a quarterback with Rodgers' pedigree. Yet there he was on the first day of training camp, leaping to intercept a pass down the left sideline intended for receiver Jared Abbrederis.
Gunter's interception was the first in a handful of impressive moments for a player whose size (6-foot-2, 201 pounds) is ideal but whose speed coming out of college (4.69 seconds in the 40-yard dash) was not. Instead, Gunter relies on his long arms and excellent hand placement to win plays at the line of scrimmage, according to Whitt. His forceful play has received praise from receivers Jordy Nelson and Ty Montgomery.
Gunter, Whitt said, knows the difference between attacking the shoulders when jamming a receiver (incorrect) and targeting the breastplate (correct) to increase his margin for error. If he aims for the shoulder and misses, his palm grabs nothing but air. If he aims for the breastplate and fires wide, he still connects with the shoulder.
"It might sound simple," said Whitt, demonstrating on a reporter, "but a lot of people can't do it."
Attached to the strong performances, though, is an important asterisk that will not be lifted until the exhibition games are underway. A few blown coverages or missed assignments with actual scoreboard repercussions could permanently erase memories of training camp interceptions.
But until then, until Aug. 13 when the Packers travel to Massachusetts for a game against New England, the cornerbacks remain a pleasant surprise.
"We're going to have to see these guys play a lot in the preseason," Capers said. "But they're competing and making plays on the practice field."
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