GREEN BAY – It was the right time for a short week. Around him, teammates could gripe about aches and pains. They could bemoan Thursday night football.
LaDarius Gunter wanted back on the field. Needed back on the field. Sooner the better.
On Sunday, the Green Bay Packers' second-year cornerback was picking himself up from Lambeau Field’s grass. Gunter gave the Dallas Cowboys 62 yards on consecutive plays to end the first half. He slipped on the first. Coughed up a back-breaking touchdown on the second.
It was inexplicable. Inexcusable. But Gunter didn't have time to wallow in his mistakes.
He was four days from meeting Chicago Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery.
“Just get back to the basics,” Gunter said. “That’s all it was really about. Just finishing plays.”
For most cornerbacks, Jeffery is not an ideal rebound assignment. The Pro Bowl receiver towers over the field, using his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame to out-muscle smaller defenders. Jeffery entered Lambeau Field ranked 10th in the league with 487 yards on 29 catches this season.
He left after Gunter held him to 33 yards on three catches.
Sure, the Packers' defense was fortunate. Bears quarterback Brian Hoyer, playing well in place of injured Jay Cutler, broke his left arm before halftime. That left Chicago with third-string quarterback Matt Barkley, who had thrown 50 passes in his career before Thursday night.
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Regardless, a depleted secondary couldn’t take any quarterback lightly. For the second straight game, the Packers were without their top three cornerbacks. A concussion from the team's opener finally placed Sam Shields on injured reserve earlier this week. Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins were out with groin injuries.
“It was tough,” safety Morgan Burnett said.
So tough, the Packers needed Gunter to match Jeffery much of the night.
His 6-foot-1 height and 31½-inch arms make Gunter a rarity. He has the length to contend with Jeffery, the press-man technique to hold his own at the line of scrimmage. Gunter knew the matchup “kind of favored” him, at least more than it would others.
After struggling last week, Gunter added, he entered Thursday with the right attitude.
“I’m just a competitor,” Gunter said. “You can’t get down on one game in the season. There’s 16, 17 weeks. So you really just have to keep that in the past and just move forward.”
Gunter’s redemption started early. On the Bears' opening possession, Hoyer threw passes to Jeffery on second and third down. Gunter blanketed him on both.
The Bears were forced to punt after a three-and-out.
Confidence grew from there, Gunter said. Not that his teammates ever doubted. They see the swagger he carries each day. Few in the locker room have more bravado.
“He’s a guy that takes his job serious,” Burnett said. “Not just from the past four days, but from the time he stepped in this locker room as an undrafted free agent, he was focused. He’s focused, and he’s on a mission. You can see it in his eyes, the way that he prepares, the way that he carries himself. You know that he’s going to make his plays.
“There’s a term we say, like, ‘He’s got some dog in him.’ That’s sure what Gunt has. He has some dog in him. He’s going to compete. He don’t care who you put in front of him. He’s going to go out there and fight.”
The Packers’ reliance on Gunter won’t change anytime soon. Even if a few extra days until their next game gives Randall and Rollins enough rest to heal and return, Gunter figures to play a significant role.
With the Packers placing running back Eddie Lacy on injured reserve Thursday, Shields’ season could be over. Only one can return this fall: Lacy or Shields. The decision could come down to who’s available.
Lacy will have ankle surgery, but there’s a realistic chance he could return from IR when he becomes eligible Week 15. Dealing with his fifth documented concussion, Shields’ future is less guaranteed.
In the modern, pass-happy NFL, a team’s top three cornerbacks are considered starters. As long as he stays healthy, it’s probable Gunter will factor into the top three through the rest of the season.
Coach Mike McCarthy said his youngster’s ability to recover so quickly is why he’s confident Gunter can handle increased responsibility.
“I think it shows you why he’s been given starter reps,” McCarthy said. “Back to training camp, this guy, he’s just such a tenacious competitor. That’s what you look for in your young players, is to take a step. So we talked all week about moving on, cleansing ourselves from the Dallas loss. Just the basics of what we do and how we play, and clearly how we train and what we believe, were not there Sunday.
“So the ability to move on and just start clean against the Bears, that was everybody. I thought our team did that, and he was a great example of that.”
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