Young Packers secondary coming of age

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers cornerback Damarious Randall (23) celebrates his interception with defensive end Datone Jones (95) during the game against the Oakland Raiders at Lambeau Field.

GREEN BAY - If you’re undrafted rookie Kentrell Brice and you just watched the Green Bay Packers defense hold the Oakland Raiders passing game to one 20-yard completion and not much else, you have to wonder what it is you can do to top that.

The answer is continue to shut down the Raiders starters so starting quarterback Derek Carr finishes 9 of 13 for 38 yards and an interception in the first half of a 20-12 Packers victory at Lambeau Field on Thursday night.

“I feel like they set the standard,” Brice, a promising young safety, said of the Packers’ starting secondary. “You have to try to play at that standard. That’s the standard you’re expected to play at.”

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It was just a second exhibition game and no one is going to confuse Oakland’s offensive game plan with anything they might use in the regular season, but the Packers secondary did what it was asked to do against an up-and-coming quarterback who threw for 276 yards and two touchdowns against them in December.

But down after down, Carr was unable to puncture the deep middle of the Packers defense and continually settled for short passes across the middle and in the flat. The one strike was a 20-yard completion Carr threw to his favorite receiver, Amari Cooper, on the Raiders’ first possession.

Cornerback Damarious Randall, who was on the bad end of two Cooper touchdowns in the last meeting, was in coverage on this one. But when Carr tried to test him again with a deep ball to Cooper, Randall won the one-on-one coverage and made a leaping interception.

“It’s just preseason,” Randall said of exacting some revenge. “We got out there and kind of got in a (battle). He had a great year last year. You have to give him respect. We were batting and I was just reading his route. It was a post and that’s what I played.”

Randall has the best ball skills of any of the Packers' defensive backs and showed it when Carr’s pass sailed on him. His 48-yard return was brought back when replays showed that Cooper made contact with him, but it was the kind of attempt the Packers could have used in their NFC championship loss to Seattle two years ago.

Take away Cooper’s 20-yard gain and Carr averaged just over one yard per pass attempt. His 40.2 passer rating reflected his inability to get the ball down the field, something the Packers secondary feels it can prevent better now that its three 2015 rookies – Randall, Quinten Rollins and LaDarius Gunter – are in their second year.

“These young guys have played  a lot of snaps,” said safety Chris Banjo, who chipped in two tackles and a pass breakup. “Ha Ha (Clinton-Dix) is in his third year and he’s playing like he’s in his sixth. Same with Damarious and Quinten, those guys have played a lot and they grew up fast.

“Everybody is contributing. The young guys are competing and providing us with a lot of depth.”

Brice replaced Clinton-Dix in the second quarter and got a good look at the Raiders starting offense, including Cooper, a budding star. His explosive speed was evident from the very start and as the game wore on he looked like he was closing on receivers more confidently.

He had three tackles, including one for loss, and didn’t allow any receivers to leak into the deep secondary.

“I feel like things are slowing down because I’m understanding the scheme,” Brice said. “I’m playing faster. Whenever I see the ball, (I) get to the ball. I just try to get to the ball.”

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There were some blips in the secondary like when cornerback Robertson Daniel and safety Marwin Evans allowed receivers to get behind them on quarterback scrambles, but they happened late in the game and didn’t leave too much of a blemish on the entire performance.

If the Packers are going to have a defense that carries them to the Super Bowl, they’re going to have to cut down on the big plays they allowed last year. Two exhibition games doesn't a season make, but it’s clear the secondary has grown in both experience and ability.

“You’re definitely just trying to get better,” Rollins said. “Everybody is doing their assignment. That’s what it comes down, everyone being in the right spot at the right time. Any time you’re out there, you’re trying to build chemistry and do whatever you need to do to get better.”

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