Packers' Gunter stands tall against Beckham
GREEN BAY - He’s making a mockery of the stopwatch every week. In a foot race, LaDarius Gunter is not the cornerback you pick. He was too slow for the NFL. Ran a 4.69 40 at the combine. Not worth a draft pick.
That’s what the stopwatch said.
Now put him on a football field. Put him on perhaps the league’s most explosive player, the guy who makes a living turning 3-yard hitches into 70-yard touchdowns. Put him in the playoffs.
Gunter is not the cornerback you first think should shadow Odell Beckham Jr. This is big and physical versus a blur. Over 40 yards, Gunter gives up three-tenths of a second in speed against the New York Giants receiver.
That’s what the stopwatch said.
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With Gunter, track times never meant much. The Green Bay Packers didn’t just allow their second-year, former undrafted cornerback to cover the Giants' jitterbug Pro Bowler. They committed to it.
Gunter matched Beckham for four quarters in the Packers' 38-13 wild-card win Sunday. It was a bold decision, departing from what worked so well when the Giants came to Lambeau Field in October.
Back then, the Packers played Quinten Rollins on one side of the field, Gunter on the other. They did not dare switch, relying on deep safeties no matter where Beckham lined up. It worked, too. The Packers won, and Beckham had just five catches for 56 yards.
What the Packers did in Sunday’s rematch worked even better. Beckham finished with just 28 yards. He caught only four of the 11 passes Giants quarterback Eli Manning threw him. Whichever side of the field Beckham lined up, Gunter followed.
“Gunt’s the man,” defensive back Micah Hyde said. “His film study, the way he competes. That’s a bad boy right there. He doesn’t get enough credit for the stuff that he does, and, yeah, he did match 13 (Beckham) today.
“So he deserves the credit that he went out there and balled out.”
It takes a group effort to corral a talent like Beckham. On Sunday, an entire defense was designed to erase the Giants star. The Packers sacked Manning twice but pressured him more. On the back end, a deep pool of safeties threw a protective net over Lambeau Field.
It allowed Gunter to do what he does. The stopwatch might overlook him, but any old-school corner would be proud. Gunter isn’t just 6-foot-1, more than 200 pounds with 31½-inch arms. He uses his size and reach to put receivers in the boxing ring, working them over with constant jabs at the line of scrimmage.
Try going 12 rounds with a cornerback this physical. That’s what Gunter did with Beckham for 60 minutes. The pass rush combined with safety help allowed Gunter to play as physical as he wanted against a receiver two inches shorter, a few pounds lighter.
Sometimes, he got even more help. On one third down, Gunter and safety Kentrell Brice played press-man together at the line of scrimmage, jamming Beckham like he was a gunner on punt coverage.
By the time Gunter was through with him Sunday, Beckham’s frustrations boiled over. He punched his fist through a wall, threw a fit in the locker room, no doubt knowing questions about his ill-advised trip to Miami would follow him through the next week.
“I just played my game,” Gunter said. “You just want to disrupt timing on those guys, and Eli. They’re great at making checks at the line and so forth. So you just want to just throw them off rhythm, and let my big boys (pass rush) go play ball.
“I just always wanted to get my hands on him and disrupt everything if I can.”
It wasn’t perfect. Never is against this kind of playmaker. Beckham used his speed to get behind Gunter a couple times. He dropped three passes, not making things easier for himself with Giants fans back home.
Irony, it was, that the Giants receivers struggled with drops Sunday. Drops were a significant part of the Packers' upset loss in the 2011 NFC divisional round at Lambeau Field. On Sunday, the roles reversed.
The Giants dropped two touchdown passes on the second drive before settling for a field goal and 6-0 lead. One bounced off Beckham’s hands.
“When it went up,” Beckham said, “it just kind of caught me by surprise. And it was moving as I started to run. I didn’t know whether to leap for it or if I’d be able to get to it. I just reached my hands out late, and the ball got there. I didn’t think I’d be able to get to it.
“It caught me by surprise.”
Gunter’s ascension caught the Packers by surprise. Maybe not anymore — Gunter has been their best cornerback for weeks — but certainly in the beginning.
Remember, they spent a first-round draft pick on Damarious Randall, a second-round draft pick on Quinten Rollins. Gunter, in the same rookie class, was undrafted out of Miami. Just like Sam Shields.
Randall had an interception late in the fourth quarter Sunday, running it back 78 meaningless yards in a game that was already over. Gunter — the undrafted, the unexpected — handled the game’s key assignment.
No, the stopwatch couldn’t have predicted this. But it’s to the point where Gunter no longer is a surprise.
“He’s been fighting all year,” safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said. “He’s a heck of a football player, and I’m happy to have him with me.”
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