Injuries stressing Packers' secondary

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - By the time the Green Bay Packers decided cornerback Damarious Randall would not return to Sunday’s game after aggravating a groin injury, their cornerback position resembled a jigsaw puzzle assembled by a toddler.

To one side of the formation stood LaDarius Gunter, a former undrafted free agent who before this season never had played more than 31 snaps in a game. To the other side stood Demetri Goodson, a man of special-teams import whose four-game suspension for violating the league policy on performance-enhancing drugs expired six days prior.

The nickel corner was Micah Hyde, which was acceptable but still not ideal. The dime corner was safety Morgan Burnett, whose role this season seems to have encompassed five or six different positions.

The whole operation was a mess.

“This describes an NFL team,” Goodson said Monday. “That’s why you’ve got to have depth, man, because you just don’t know what’s going to happen. I feel like every team around the league deals with it some way or another. Some are worse than others, but I feel like every team deals with the same stuff.”

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And yet, despite the way the game ended — with one corner a few weeks removed from his first career start and the other having just four practices under his belt — the situation had appeared manageable roughly 30 hours before kickoff.

The Packers took the field Saturday for their final practice of the week, and it seemed as though both Randall (groin) and Rollins (healthy at the time) would start against the Cowboys one day later. But Rollins injured his groin to a degree that the Packers ruled him out more than 24 hours before kickoff. And after the game, McCarthy said Rollins won’t be available Thursday against the Chicago Bears, either.

“Quinten Rollins hurt himself yesterday at practice,” McCarthy said after the loss. “Last-minute injuries are a challenge. He won’t be available this week against Chicago. I know that. Other than that, I don’t have a full timeline.”

That McCarthy ruled Rollins out of Thursday’s game four days in advance suggests the injury could be significant, and it’s possible Rollins might miss more than just two games.

Still uncertain is the status of Randall, who played 18 of the 65 snaps against the Dallas Cowboys before the same groin injury that kept him out of the win over the New York Giants flared to an uncomfortable level.

And of course there’s Sam Shields, the team’s true No. 1 corner who suffered a concussion in Week 1 and has not practiced or played since. Shields remains in the concussion protocol and must be cleared by an independent neurologist before he can return. Coach Mike McCarthy said Shields began attending cornerback and defensive meetings last week.

“We have two stress points: the running back group, the corner group,” McCarthy said in his Monday news conference. “It’s going to take a while to sort through that. So based on the same situation, and Randall and (Rollins), we’re still working through it.”

So at the moment, as the Packers begin their preparations for the Bears, they once again have just three healthy corners: Gunter, Goodson and rookie Josh Hawkins, an undrafted free agent. The only difference between this scenario and the one they faced two weeks ago, prior to a game against the Giants, is that none of these players were starters — or even regular contributors — last season.

“I think obviously the stress points of our game-day roster for Thursday will be the running back position and the corner position,” McCarthy said. “Any time you’re dealing with your 53-man roster, how you’re going to forecast how you’re going to line up with the 46, you’ve got two positions that need attention and, frankly, these injuries that we have, they’re not of long-term IR nature. That’s all part of a normal season. You’ve just got to work through it.

“It’s Monday. We’re still gathering information. I don’t know if we’ll have it sorted out until Tuesday, maybe Wednesday.”

If nothing changes and Randall, Rollins and Shields are all unable to play, the Packers might return to the same rotation they used against the Cowboys. Gunter, the de facto No. 1, played 64 of 65 snaps but was exposed on a number of occasions. Goodson, who was called into duty late in the first half after Randall departed, played 36 of 65 snaps. It was his highest total since playing 49 snaps in a loss to the Carolina Panthers last year.

Entering the 2016 season, neither Gunter nor Goodson had started a game in the National Football League. Goodson still hasn’t.

“I was actually ready,” Goodson said. “I watched a lot of film on them throughout the week so I wasn’t shocked to be in there or nothing like that.”

To Goodson’s point, the idea that cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. and defensive coordinator Dom Capers turned to Goodson rather than Hawkins was a fairly significant endorsement. Goodson, who returned from his four-game suspension Monday, had been away from the facility for a month under the terms of his punishment. He had not taken a single rep or snap or made a single tackle since the end of training camp.

Yet there he was, called into duty alongside Gunter as Hawkins, who has been healthy for several weeks, stood idly on the sideline.

“Solid, solid,” Goodson said of his play. “Very, very solid game, especially for my first game back and playing all those snaps.”

Whether Goodson plays as much against the Bears remains unclear, and the cornerback rotation may not be ironed out until late Wednesday afternoon. McCarthy and his staff have fewer than 72 hours to figure everything out.

“We had an ongoing three- or four-day conversation last week, and it’ll be the same here,” McCarthy said. “We’ve just got less time to do it. It’s never, ‘Give me another running back.’ Or, ‘Give me another corner.’ Because it’s a long year. you have 53, plus you’re counting practice squad guys. That is the chess match right there. If you’re talking about chess match in the game of football, it’s managing your roster.”

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