LeRoy Butler and Tom Silverstein take a look at the Green Bay Packers cornerbacks' performance against the Atlanta Falcons. (Sept. 19, 2017) USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY – For one week, Kevin King mulled this moment. He didn’t know how he’d react. All alone, back pressed against the end zone, with Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones snarling from across the line of scrimmage.
This was sink or swim. Baptism by fire. No room to retreat.
The Green Bay Packers' rookie corner had to make a play against maybe the world’s greatest receiver. King didn’t know how he’d feel in that moment, until he stared Jones in the facemask, his nerves melting away, leaving unexpected resolve for a rookie.
“I hoped they threw it,” King said. “Then the next play, I thought they were going to do it again. That’s what I wanted.”
They did throw it. Jones pushed King into the end zone, muscling the rookie. A half yard past the goal line, he flipped his hips for a quick out.
King was all over it. If Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan hadn't sailed his pass out of bounds, the Packers rookie might’ve taken it 100 yards the other way.
The next play, the Falcons scored a touchdown. But they didn’t throw it again. Instead, Ryan handed off to running back Devonta Freeman.
It was a snapshot of why King quickly has climbed the Packers' depth chart. You can rave about his 6-3 height, or 32-inch arms. You can point to his 4.43 speed. Without confidence, those measurables mean nothing.
Arms crossed, Packers skully over his braids, swagger poured from King this week as he leaned against his locker, discussing the start of his NFL career. Yes, this rookie has a healthy dose of cocky.
“Just because I haven’t done it before at this level,” King said, “doesn’t mean I can’t. I’ve just got to go out there and prove it.”
He’ll get his chance this week. After six snaps in the opener, King played 46 in Atlanta. The Packers stopped short of naming King a starter Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, but that’s only semantics.
From here on, they want their top draft pick on the field.
The Packers drafted King for his rare combination of size and speed. His intangibles have placed him atop the Packers' depth chart. Already, the rookie has shown an advanced feel for his position.
“The guy is going to be good for us. Real good,” veteran cornerback Davon House said. “The one thing I can say, he’s not scared of anyone — as a rookie, too. I remember him talking about how he wanted to be on Julio the whole game. Usually, most players — not just rookies — aren’t saying that.
“So that’s one thing about him, he’s a dog. And he loves to compete.”
King got ample exposure covering Jones last week. He didn’t blink. His best play came late in the second quarter, when he again found himself all alone.
The Falcons like to run their top receiver horizontally, using Jones’ 4.3 speed to create separation on crossing routes. Jones beat cornerback Damarious Randall for 34 yards on the same concept during their opening drive.
With Jones, it may be the hardest route to cover.
“In our minds,” King said, “we’re planning on covering a guy that’s trying to beat you north. So if our anticipation is that he’s coming at us, and he goes diagonally as fast as he can across the field, that makes the field bigger. It makes it a lot bigger. So if you’ve got a fast guy who can run that route, like Julio caught that route early, those are very typical routes.
“Even half a step, that’s a completion.”
This time, King didn’t let Jones get away. After tracking him across the field, King batted Ryan’s pass with his inside, right hand.
His speed and length helped. What made the play, King said, was instinctual. Just before Ryan released his pass, King cut underneath Jones. With safeties shading the opposite side, it was a gamble. King risked allowing a big gain with a completion.
Except King knew it was the angle he had to take.
It took him four strides to diagnose the play. He saw outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry charge hard upfield, pressuring Ryan. With a quick calculation, King used the Packers' pass rush, knowing a shallow angle would force Ryan to make a perfect throw under duress.
“If I undercut it,” King said, “and he sees my jersey underneath, he has to make a perfect throw. The type of guys we’ve got coming at him, that’s not as easy as it sounds — and it don’t sound easy at all. That’s a very difficult throw. I mean, there’s definitely guys in this league that can make it, and Ryan is definitely a guy who can make that throw. But can he make that throw at that time?”
King showed his instincts before last Sunday. Though he played sparingly in the opener, one snap was memorable.
In the fourth quarter, King was in man coverage against Seattle Seahawks running back C.J. Prosise. The Seahawks ran a rub route, with Prosise slicing into the seam and receiver Amara Darboh fading to the left sideline. When quarterback Russell Wilson released his pass to Darboh, King immediately peeled off Prosise.
Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix knocked Darboh out of bounds in midair to prevent a completion, but King was in position to help — even if it wasn’t his assignment.
“He had enough vision,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said, “that he saw the ball thrown and he rolled off and was part of that (play).”
Athleticism only goes so far. A No. 1 corner needs enough awareness to see the field like a safety. Behind the measurable, there’s a natural feel for the game.
It’s why the Packers aren’t hesitating to play King more snaps, even with A.J. Green coming to town. He’s an infrequent matchup. The Packers last faced Green in 2013. Of their current corners, only House was on the roster.
Watch the tape, House said, and the Bengals’ 6-4, 210-pound receiver looks familiar.
“He doesn’t move like a big guy,” House said. “He’s a 4.3 guy, exactly like Julio. So if people say Julio is the best in the world, then you would say A.J. Green is probably 1B, right underneath him.”
Any other rookie, you think twice before assigning Green. This rookie?
King already has mulled what it will be like Sunday if he’s standing there, staring into Green’s facemask.
“I can respond from this game two different ways,” King said. “I can get big-headed and think, oh, yeah, I’m — whatever. And then come out, and the Bengals go for I don’t know how many yards on me.
“It doesn’t matter if I don’t do it again, and again, and again. It’s all about, what have you done for me lately?”