Swapping roles helps secondary survive

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers cornerback Quinten Rollins (24) defends Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson (15) in the fourth quarter on Sept. 10, 2016, at EverBank Field.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -  By the time Damarious Randall wrapped two hands around wide receiver Allen Hurns, setting in motion the cathartic gang tackle that sealed a 27-23 win, the Green Bay Packers had resorted to a secondary stew.

They arrived at EverBank Field two cornerbacks lighter than last Saturday, when general manager Ted Thompson submitted his 53-man roster. And as the Jacksonville Jaguars mounted a potential game-winning drive Sunday, crossing midfield with two minutes remaining, the Packers found themselves down two more.

Veteran Sam Shields, felled by another potential concussion, and No. 4 corner LaDarius Gunter watched from the sideline as defensive coordinator Dom Capers began to improvise. He moved Micah Hyde to the nickel spot. He enlisted Morgan Burnett, a safety, to play slot corner in the dime. He entrusted Randall and Quinten Rollins, both rookies at this time last season, to hold the fort on the outside.

“We definitely practice at different positions,” Hyde said. “It just goes along with talking to you guys about this all the time and preseason and training camp about mismatching and different positions. That benefited us today, honestly.”

INSIDER: Thumbs up to Randall, down to Rollins

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The Packers held off the Jaguars with a pseudo-goal line stand made possible by their secondary, and more specifically its interchangeability. In a game where heat and injury pecked at his players, Capers adjusted well in combating an explosive Jacksonville offense. His task was as much problem solver as coordinator, and these were the pieces with which he worked: three corners capable of playing inside and out; two safeties who float freely between positions; an undrafted free agent; a veritable Swiss army knife in Hyde.

Though spirited and improvisational, Sunday’s performance was truly rooted in May, when the Packers began OTAs and cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. acquiesced to something Randall requested last season.

Before free agency, Casey Hayward served as the nickel corner and fulfilled what Whitt refers to as the “star” position. With an alignment closer to the ball — the slot is nearer the quarterback than the boundary — players in the star have more opportunities to influence each play. They cover, they blitz, they support the run.

Randall, then a rookie, wanted in.

“I don’t want to say in the past the corners didn’t necessarily know exactly what to do as far as inside/outside and everything else,” Hyde said. “But this year’s different. They have a lot more responsibility in knowing the defense, and that benefits us this year.”

Beginning with OTAs, Whitt rotated his cornerbacks through the gamut of potential roles. He continued through minicamp, through training camp and into Sunday, the season opener, when Randall and Rollins saw their in-game job descriptions flip.

Randall opened the first quarter on the perimeter, opposite Shields, and Rollins played the “star” position in the slot. They swapped roles in the second quarter; in the second half, they swapped back.

“It was very valuable,” Randall said. “They didn’t know what to expect out there.”

But the newness of certain roles was apparent, and Rollins had a difficult afternoon on the outside. Hurns beat him for 30 yards with a splendid double move. Three plays later, tight end Julius Thomas out-reached him for a 20-yard score.

The shoddy sequence sent Rollins to the bench, which afforded Gunter his first try. Gunter lined up in the slot and was quickly victimized for a 38-yard gain.

“A lot different from practice,” Gunter said of playing the slot in a meaningful game. “A lot different from the preseason. But I’m glad I got this under my belt for the first week and I’m ready to move forward.”

The swapping culminated in a frazzled fourth quarter. Needing a touchdown to win, the Jaguars reclaimed possession with 3:17 remaining and the ball on their own 37-yard line. The defense across from them kept mutating.

With Shields injured and Gunter cramped, Capers turned to Randall and Rollins to fortify the outside. Hyde manned the nickel. Morgan Burnett, a safety, was called into action as a slot corner in the dime.

“Wherever they need me at, I’m going to do it with no complaint,” Burnett said.

Quarterback Blake Bortles guided his offense to the 14-yard line, where a game-deciding fourth down took place. He fired to his right, toward Hurns, and Randall flew in to converge.

He wrapped two hands around Hurns’ waist. The interchangeable secondary survived.

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