GREEN BAY – In their winner-take-all NFC North title showdown with the Minnesota Vikings last season, cornerback LaDarius Gunter did not play a single snap on defense.
Sam Shields was out with a concussion and defensive coordinator Dom Capers went with the combination of Casey Hayward, Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and Micah Hyde.
The secondary held quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to 99 yards passing and while the Packers lost 20-13, the defensive performance sure boded well for the future of rookie corners Randall and Rollins.
A year later, the Packers are in another winner-take-all game for the division and the cornerstone of the position isn’t either of the two high draft picks. It is Gunter, the undrafted free agent from Miami, who like the others is in his second season.
“He’s been, over the season, probably our highest-graded corner,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “That says a ton.”
Yes, it does.
It says that neither Randall nor Rollins has played as well as or stayed as healthy as a guy no one thought enough of to even spend a seventh-round pick on. It says with the division on the line Sunday in Detroit, the 9-6 Packers know the one guy they can count on for sure is Gunter.
“It actually feels good,” Gunter said of the commitment the Packers have shown in him. “It’s like a relief to know that they trust you and they’re not so uptight and scared that you’ll go and mess up or miss a play here and there. We’re all human, but assuming that they trust you is a good feeling.”
Though Gunter had to leave the game last week against the Vikings because of an injured elbow, he was back at practice as a full participant and is expected to start this week. One of the things that has separated him from the other two is that he has only missed two practices all season, both the result of illness.
Whereas Randall has missed five games and most of another and Rollins three games because of groin injuries, Gunter has played 82.3 percent of the snaps (87.6 prior to the Vikings game) and been the one constant at the position.
Gunter leads all cornerbacks in tackles (55), pass break-ups (13) and forced fumbles (two).
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What separated Randall and Rollins from Gunter in the draft was athletic ability. At the scouting combine, Randall ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds, Rollins in 4.57 seconds and Gunter in 4.69 seconds. Randall had a 38-inch vertical leap, Rollins 36 ½ inches and Gunter 33 ½ inches.
Despite the snap totals, Randall has three interceptions, Rollins one and Gunter none.
When asked about the Packers’ corners, who were on the wrong end of many of the 368 yards passing the Lions had in their Week 3 loss in Green Bay, receiver Golden Tate said he thought highly of the talent. But left unsaid was how well he thought they were applying it.
“Earlier this year when we played them, I didn't think they were at the top of their game,” Tate said. “I think as of recently, they're playing better. I think you've got a bunch of young guys out there who are trying to learn the game within the game.
“I think talent-wise, hands down, they have a lot of talent. But you know, we'll see what happens this week.”
Capers has a decision to make with Randall and Rollins this week. Last week, he sat Randall because a shoulder injury suffered against Chicago was still bothering him. Rollins started but when Gunter got hurt, Randall had to play.
Randall broke up a deep ball and a third-down slant, but looked cautious at times. Rollins didn’t have a single pass break-up despite Sam Bradford throwing 50 times.
If the Packers are going to get past the Lions, and somewhere beyond the first round of the playoffs, they're going to need more than just Gunter to play with some consistency. They’re going to need their most talented guys to be more than just post-reception tacklers.
“I think those guys have definitely gotten better,” McCarthy said. “I know what the numbers say, particularly the production Minnesota had in the fourth quarter. You’ve got to recognize it. We’ve got to stop them. It doesn’t just go away.
“But I definitely feel that we are getting better in the secondary, particularly at the corner position, and I think some continuity through the practice week is really the best thing that we can do moving forward because that’s what’s going to help us.”
All three were at practice Wednesday. They need to show up Sunday night, too.