GREEN BAY – It was the play that essentially ended the Green Bay Packers’ 2015 season: A wide-open Larry Fitzgerald catching a pass on a crossing route and dashing for 75 yards on the first play of overtime, setting up the winning touchdown in Arizona’s 26-20 victory Jan. 16 in the NFC divisional playoffs.
In the immediate aftermath, Packers outside linebacker Julius Peppers came under criticism for vacating the area around the Green Bay 35-yard line where Fitzgerald came open. It wasn’t until a couple of days later that Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers confirmed to the media that Peppers did what he was supposed to do on the play in choosing to pressure Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer.
And although there was plenty of blame to go around, with two Packers defenders missing tackles that could have limited Fitzgerald’s catch to a 25-yard gain, the main culprit was identified as rookie cornerback Damarious Randall, who was lined up opposite Fitzgerald on the left side of the field and was supposed to follow the Cardinals receiver on his route to the right sideline.
”I think (Randall) knew the call,” Capers said back in January. “But you have to evaluate how shallow the crossing route goes on that. If it goes underneath defenders then you have the ability to come off of that. If it goes over the top of him then you have to carry it. He just needed to carry (the coverage) further across the field.”
Randall finally got an opportunity to address the issue last week after an organized team activities session, and the Packers’ 2015 first-round draft pick didn’t back away from accepting responsibility.
“I put that play on myself,” Randall said. “I take 100 percent blame for it.”
Randall isn’t letting that play affect the confidence he gained over the course of a strong first season. The 5-foot-11, 196-pound former Arizona State star tied for the team lead with three interceptions (returning one for a touchdown against Oakland) and also picked off a pass in the playoff loss to Arizona.
Randall, 23, said he hasn’t spent the offseason dwelling on the blown coverage against Fitzgerald.
“It was just a mistake that was made,” Randall said. “That’s football. … I just know that I’m going to make a lot more plays than I give up for the Green Bay Packers.”
In fact, Randall already is envisioning a day when he is recognized as the NFL’s premier cornerback. With the ups and downs of his rookie year behind him, Randall said his mindset is that “if guys are catching passes on me, they’re lucky. I’m looking to be one of the shutdown corners of the league.
“People say who their top-five corners are, but at the end of the day I’m going to do what I have to do and I’m looking forward to showing the world why I’m the best cornerback anywhere.”
The free-agent departure of starting cornerback Casey Hayward to San Diego opens up a clear starting slot for Randall and also creates opportunities in the nickel sub-package for cornerback Quinten Rollins, the Packers’ second-round draft pick last year.
“They both have a very high level of work ethic,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said during the NFL owners meetings in March. “They put a lot of time in. Football-junkie types. They spend a lot of time on video and you could see as their confidence was building throughout the year that they played some good football for us.”
Capers said last week he likes the “flexibility” that Randall and Rollins provide.
“They’re multiple-position players that have the potential to play outside, inside,” Capers said. “They both are tough physically. I think they’ll both be good tacklers. Nowadays you not only have to have coverage ability, but you’ve got to have the ability, when people want to run the ball at you, to be able to come up and tackle. The physical wide receivers that they play against and the big running backs.”
And as for losing the veteran leadership that Hayward provided?
“Leaders in this business are kind of developed on the field,” Capers said. “It’s a society of productivity and when you produce on the field, people have a tendency to listen to what you have to say.”
Listen to Randall and you know he's not lacking for confidence.
“The sky is the limit for us,” Randall said. “Our goal is to be the No. 1 secondary in America and ultimately go to the Super Bowl. That’s the plan each and every day and we’re just going to keep on getting better and better.”
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