CLEVELAND – Two months ago, Damarious Randall was an enigma, a cornerback whose performance was not matching his athletic ability.
The Green Bay Packers’ coaches were favoring rookie Kevin King over Randall and it almost sent the third-year pro into an abyss — at least as far as others were concerned.
On Sunday, with King on injured reserve and Davon House playing with a serious shoulder injury, Randall was given the job of shadowing Cleveland receiver Josh Gordon. Just the week prior, Gordon had returned from a three-year suspension and debuted with four catches for 85 yards.
The 6-3, 225-pound receiver towers over the 5-11, 196-pound Randall, but no one in the secondary is playing better than Randall and the Packers needed him to keep Gordon in check.
And that’s exactly what Randall did.
“He had one catch,” Randall said. “Any more questions?”
Officially, Gordon had three catches for 69 yards and a touchdown, but two of the catches, including his 18-yard touchdown, did not come on Randall. That catch, as well as his 38-yard catch on the Browns’ first offensive play, came with the Packers in zone coverage.
“I matched him the whole game,” Randall said of man coverage. “When he was in the slot, we were in zone.”
Gordon was in the slot to start the game and he ran all the way across the field to get between linebacker Clay Matthews and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. He finished the same drive with a catch between several defenders in the middle of zone coverage.
“That’s just the NFL,” safety Morgan Burnett said. “Guys are going to make plays and you have to line up. You can’t hang your hat on one play or two plays. You have to have that mentality.”
Randall gave the Packers a chance against Gordon despite the fact House was limited and eventually left in the fourth quarter after appearing to get kicked in the lower back.
The Packers made sure he had help from either Clinton-Dix or Josh Jones whenever possible so there was as little chance as possible of him beating them with repeated big plays.
“They went to two guys over the top with guys playing man underneath quite a bit,” Browns quarterback DeShon Kizer said. “They had that in their back pocket all year. We saw that quite a bit after we came out and got a quick start going.
“There are obviously some opportunities within that style of defense to go out and make some big plays that we were not able to make.”
Randall nearly had an interception in man coverage on the play in which House got hurt. Gordon was running across the field and Randall, anticipating the throw, broke in front of the receiver. The ball bounced off his hands.
“Yeah, I came up a little bit short,” Randall said. “Those are the plays I’m accustomed to making.”
Perhaps Randall’s biggest play came on Cleveland’s final play from scrimmage. Lined up across from Gordon on third-and-2 at the Cleveland 33 in overtime, Randall jammed the receiver and put him in a bear hug, causing Kizer to go to his next read.
Kizer began to scramble and when linebacker Clay Matthews hit his arm as he tried to heave the ball down the field, the ball went up for grabs. Jones picked it off and five plays later, receiver Davante Adams was in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
The focus will now turn to the Carolina Panthers, the Packers’ next opponent. The injury to House could keep him out of the lineup and leave Randall and Josh Hawkins as the only corners available with more than a handful of snaps on defense.
Undrafted rookies Lenzy Pipkins and Donatello Brown were both active Sunday, but neither played. Whether the Packers can continue to function with Burnett playing in the slot with safety help over the top, remains to be seen.
The Packers’ pass rush was almost non-existent and defensive coordinator Dom Capers couldn’t blitz because of the coverage situation. Trying to win against the Panthers playing that way will be difficult.
“We control our own destiny,” Randall said. “If we win out, I’m pretty sure things will work itself out for us to be in the playoffs.”