LaDarius Gunter admitted he was “very” nervous. Hard not to be. For four months, the Green Bay Packers rookie cornerback was stashed on the sideline.
This was nothing more than a redshirt season.
So when Gunter was asked to help save the Packers' season during their NFC wild-card game at Washington, there were butterflies. With Washington driving to open the second half, the Packers switched to their dime package. That meant Gunter, an undrafted rookie who played nine snaps in 2015, was suddenly thrust into the middle of the playoffs.
“Honestly, it is difficult to be thrown into the fire,” defensive back Micah Hyde said, “but at the same time, he had no time to think about it. Sometimes that’s the best thing. You just get thrown into the fire, and you have no time to think about what’s going on, and the play and all that. You just go out there and make a play, and that’s what he did.”
Washington opened the second half with a touchdown, but those were the last points it would score. With Gunter on the field, the Packers shut down Washington’s offense. While he wasn’t the only reason, his ability to withstand the pressure was important.
Gunter was an obvious target for quarterback Kirk Cousins to pick on. Instead, Cousins only threw two passes against him. Gunter allowed one catch in 31 snaps.
With Washington trying to get back into the game in the fourth quarter, Cousins tried to prolong a drive with a pass over the middle to receiver Pierre Garçon. Gunter stuck to Garçon’s back hip, knocking the football away. Ask him how he played, and Gunter will bring up the defended pass. But not for the reasons you’d expect.
“I wish I would’ve intercepted it,” Gunter said. “I was kind of disappointed. We made a certain call between me and Casey (Hayward), but if we didn’t make that call it may have been an interception. Maybe not. You never know, but I wish I would’ve intercepted it.”
Disappointed? That’s an odd description for an undrafted rookie who survived an impromptu appearance in the playoffs. For a debut, Sunday night was a smashing success. Gunter said his phone kept buzzing inside the locker room. He heard from “everybody” after the game, an endless stream of congratulatory texts.
Gunter wanted more.
“It’s satisfying,” Gunter said, “but at the same time, you’re never satisfied. I would like to be a premier corner, but I know my role on this team. It’s special teams, and whenever I can help out (on defense). so I’m just trying to expand my role.”
He might still have a role this week when the Packers travel to the Arizona Cardinals for their NFC divisional playoff game. There isn’t a position on the Packers’ roster more depleted with injuries than cornerback. Sam Shields hasn’t played since Dec. 13 because of a concussion. His backup, Quinten Rollins, was knocked out of Sundays’ game because of a quadriceps injury.
A depleted position group was perhaps the biggest reason the Packers were blown out by 30 points in their trip to Arizona last month. That time, it was an injury-riddled offensive line that changed the game. The Packers will face one of the NFL’s most talented receiver groups in Arizona, and their lack of depth in the secondary is troubling.
Which is why Gunter could be an important factor in whether the Packers reach a second straight NFC title game. If Shields and Rollins are unavailable, Gunter will be the Packers’ dime cornerback. He’ll also be one injury away from being on the field in the nickel, the Packers’ primary package.
Gunter said he’s been on “high alert” since Shields left the Packers game against Dallas with a concussion last season. Coaches told him he could enter a game at any time. There are only so many cornerbacks on a roster.
It finally happened in Washington.
“I just try to go out and prepare myself like I’m playing every game,” Gunter said. “When I was thrown in, it was just natural to me.”
It wasn’t supposed to feel natural. Gunter went undrafted last spring because of a slow, 4.69-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine. Talent evaluators decided Gunter didn’t have the speed to play in the league.
Scouts overlooked other measurements. Gunter is tall and lanky, standing 6-foot-1. His arms stretch 31 1/2 inches. Packers receiver James Jones has competed against Gunter in practice. He said the rookie is a tough matchup.
“He’s long, man,” Jones said. “The long guys are the guys that give receivers the most trouble. When you’re in press coverage against a long guy, he can get his hands on you from a long distance and cause some trouble at the line of scrimmage, or even when you’re in your routes. He’s long, he’s tall, and I believe that’s his advantage. His strong point is his press man-to-man.”
Gunter’s ability to play press man-to-man – an important yet sometimes difficult technique for young corners – is why the Packers signed him to their 53-man roster before the season. He was expected to grow into a role, developing at his own pace. That plan was discarded in Washington.
Eventually, Gunter said, he wants to be a bigger role. He might get it Saturday.
“He got thrown into the fire last game,” Hyde said, “went out there and made a few plays. That’s all you can ask. I just told him in walkthrough today, I told him I was proud of him. To go out there, especially as a rookie in his first postseason game, and to go out there and make some plays when you had no idea when you’re going to go in, that’s big. That’s big-time, and I think that’s good for his psyche.
“As a rookie, when you go out there and make some plays in the postseason, you know you can go out there and keep performing. So I’m proud of him, and there’s going to be a lot more plays that Gun’s going to make in the future, too.”
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