From the sideline, Aaron Rodgers didn’t know exactly where San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers would throw the football, but he had a pretty good idea.
The Green Bay Packers had five defensive backs on the field for their fourth-and-goal stand with 20 seconds left Sunday. Only one was a rookie. Damarious Randall, the first-round pick in May, never had been in this situation before.
Quarterbacks dream of this opportunity.
“If I was out there against a rookie,” Rodgers said, “you’re going after him.”
Randall was one of 11 defenders charged with preventing a game-tying touchdown with the Packers leading 27-20 late in Sunday’s game, which is significant enough. With the Packers in zone coverage on fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line, the rookie’s role was especially difficult. Randall had to be in two places at once, equally responsible for supporting coverage in the back of the end zone and at the goal line.
Two plays earlier, Rivers had targeted tight end Antonio Gates on a corner route. Randall was in the right spot to force an incompletion. He recognized the same formation when the Chargers lined up for fourth down.
“They were trying to get it to Gates,” Randall said. “Once they kind of lined up in it, I actually knew they were going to end up running some type of similar concept. I was just trying to hold off, and to just make sure he didn’t get it in to Gates.”
Randall also had to make sure running back Danny Woodhead didn’t sneak out of the backfield. Woodhead was open on an out route at the goal line during second down, something linebacker Clay Matthews quickly pointed out after the play. So when Matthews jammed Gates at the line of scrimmage, preventing the big tight end from getting into the end zone, Randall didn’t hesitate. He jumped the out route, breaking up Rivers’ pass to Woodhead just before it hit the running back’s hands.
Any delay likely would have meant a game-tying touchdown. More than Randall’s athleticism breaking up the pass, his decisive instincts left defensive coordinator Dom Capers impressed.
“His assignment in that zone is to put himself in position where he can break on either one,” Capers said. “For a young guy, you have to know where you are on the field. If you’re on the 3-yard line, you can’t get too deep because you saw he had to break, and the timing of it where he just got there at the right time.
“His job is to key the quarterback on that and play in-between.”
It’s a lot of freedom to hand a rookie with a game on the line. To understand the magnitude, as Randall jumped off the grass and sprinted toward midfield, celebrating with teammates after his game-winning play, you have to go back seven months to the middle of March. The Packers lost not one, but two of their top cornerbacks in free agency. In a league where success hinges on throwing the football and defending the pass, the secondary was one of their biggest uncertainties.
The urgency to restock their defensive backfield was seen in the draft. General manager Ted Thompson spent not one, but two top picks on cornerbacks. So far, the result has been as positive as anyone could’ve expected.
Two weeks ago, second-round cornerback Quinten Rollins had two interceptions against the St. Louis Rams, returning the first for a 45-yard touchdown. Last week, Randall’s play at the goal line preserved a 6-0 record entering the Packers’ bye.
“Both our guys, Q and Damarious, have been doing a good job of making plays,” Rodgers said. “They have good ball skills.”
The first six games of this season have been another example of how Thompson uses the NFL draft to replenish the Packers’ depth chart.
A year ago, Thompson had his most productive rookie class. Four first-year players hit the 400-snap mark in 2014, the most since at least 2007, according to data Press-Gazette Media compiled during the offseason. The Packers’ current rookie class doesn’t appear to have the same instant depth as last year, but its early-round picks are on track to be similarly productive.
Randall and third-round receiver Ty Montgomery are locks to hit the 400-snap mark if they stay healthy through the season. Rollins, who started the season slowly but has gotten more playing time in recent weeks, has an outside chance of reaching that arbitrary marker.
If all three players reach 400 snaps, it would be the fourth straight year the Packers had a trio of rookies reach that number. From 2007-11, it didn’t happen once.
That kind of drafting consistency helps NFL teams maintain their depth. As the Packers showed the past two weeks, having capable rookies can be a difference between winning and losing.
“The game on the line,” Rodgers said, “(Randall) knocked it down. He had some good plays on the ball down the field. He’s got a lot of confidence, and he knows the ball’s going to come his way. So I’m really proud of him.
“That’s a big confidence booster for him – not that he needs a whole lot of confidence boost because it’s really pretty high for him – and that’s what you need when you play corner. You need to be a confident guy and know the ball’s coming your way and make plays on the ball.”
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