GREEN BAY – Kentrell Brice had done everything right.
Before the snap, the Green Bay Packers defense audibled for their rookie safety to play deep coverage. Five Dallas Cowboys receivers ran a route. Brice correctly recognized Terrance Williams was the only receiver who didn’t break his route off underneath.
He was in position to help cornerback Damarious Randall deep in the middle of the field. Brice beat Williams to the football, clutched an interception in two hands.
He just didn’t squeeze it.
“I should’ve had it,” said Brice, sitting at his locker inside Lambeau Field this week. “Nine times out of 10, it’s a play that I should make. I just let it get away from me.”
His dropped interception didn’t hurt the Packers. Three plays later, Micah Hyde jumped rookie quarterback Dak Prescott’s screen pass to Dez Bryant, preventing the Cowboys' third-quarter drive from reaping points. The Packers won 34-31, advancing to this week’s NFC championship game at the Atlanta Falcons.
This week, Brice knows, any mistake can be the difference between playing in the Super Bowl or going home unhappy. So he put in more time at practice working on catching the football.
“I was able to open up and break on it,” Brice said. “I didn’t get a good squeeze on it. So I’ve been working on my catching all week. I’ve been beating myself up about it.
“Next time I get the opportunity, I’ll make the play.”
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The question is how much Brice will play this week. He was inserted early in the second quarter after safety Morgan Burnett’s quad injury forced him to miss the final three quarters. Brice played a season-high 52 snaps (75 percent), playing the snaps that would’ve gone to Burnett.
It was a big stage for an undrafted rookie out of Louisiana Tech. Before Sunday, Brice hadn’t played more than 24 snaps (35 percent) in a game this season. It was a mixed bag for Brice, not surprising for a rookie thrust into a big game.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said he was pleased with how Brice played.
“You saw him make a couple really nice tackles,” Capers said.
That’s the core of Brice’s game. He’s a tough, gritty player, a byproduct, he said, of growing up in a tough neighborhood on the west side of Ruston, La. He also plays with a chip on his shoulder, fueled by being overlooked in the draft.
“I didn’t really hear much,” Brice said of his pre-draft process. “I didn’t hear much at all. I just kept my head down, told myself that I can play. I knew I had faith in myself.”
“Being looked over gives you a sour feeling. At the end of the day, I’m in the same locker room as the other guys, wherever they got drafted before me. I have my head down, I’m hungry, and I’m just working.”
If there was a top 10 of hardest hits from the Packers' defense this season, Brice might come close to filling half. He added another Sunday, laying Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley flat on his back after an 18-yard reception.
Brice’s best play came late in the second quarter when Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott broke contain with a run to the right. Brice pulled him down by the ankles before Elliott was able to head downfield. Anytime a defender tackles Elliott in the open field, it’s impressive.
“The ball spilled out one time,” Capers said, “and he was able to get Elliott by the feet and trip him up. If he doesn’t make that play, he’s going to go for big yardage. You saw him on Beasley coming over the middle and make a solid tackle.
“He’s a good combination of a guy that has pretty good athletic ability and speed, and he’s a tough guy. He’s been thrust to probably play more than we anticipated, but I think that’s helped him.”
Burnett’s thigh injury kept him out of practice each of the past two days, making his status unknown Sunday. If Brice gets another shot at an interception, he expects to be ready.
“I always try to pride myself,” Brice said, “on getting better with whatever I do. So with me dropping the interception, it just feeds the hunger for me to come back and get one, and make sure I capture it this time.”
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