Silverstein: Packers' rookie corners earning respect by showing no fear

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Oakland Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper, top, runs against Green Bay Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander during the first half of an NFL preseason football game in Oakland, Calif., Friday, Aug. 24, 2018.

OAKLAND, Calif. – In another two weeks, Green Bay Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander will still be able to chalk up plays like the 49-yard completion he gave up to Oakland receiver Amari Cooper to a rite of passage every rookie defensive back must endure.

The difference is that play might determine the outcome in a game that counts, one of 16 that aren’t played mostly for the benefit of young players like him, which is exactly what the Packers’ 13-6 exhibition game loss to the Raiders was Friday night at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.

Alexander’s slip-up came on the very first play of the game with him in man-to-man coverage on the Raiders’ No. 1 receiver.

“That first play of the game, that was a ‘Welcome to the NFL’ kind of play for me,” Alexander said.

The fact that the rookie came back and took a sure touchdown away with a leaping interception deep in Packers territory said a lot about how he treated that unwelcome welcome. And it gave his teammates an idea of whether they’ll be able to count on him being a dogged competitor.

“He has a different mentality when it comes to the game,” veteran corner Tramon Williams said. “He’s a high-energy player. He’s very passionate about the game and you could see when he came to the sideline, he was going to be OK right away.

“That’s one of those things you check off your checklist. Mentally, he’s tough.”

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He is also not alone in his introduction to the NFL.

General manager Brian Gutekunst followed his selection of Alexander with the 18th pick in the draft with the selection of cornerback Josh Jackson in the second round. If what Jackson has shown through a month of training camp is a sign of what is to come, the pick just might turn out to be one of Gutekunst’s biggest steals.

For the second week in a row, Jackson jumped an out route and not only stole the ball away from the opposition, he took it all the way back for a touchdown. This time, the play got called back because of a penalty on someone else, but the fact he nearly became tied for the team lead in touchdowns through three games was remarkable.

Jackson came to the Packers with a knack for taking the ball away – he led the nation in interceptions at Iowa last season – and the way he ripped away a ball that the receiver got his hands on showed his takeaway mentality is built-in.

“Always,” was what Jackson said when asked if he would have been willing to go after that ball in the early days of camp.

Aug 24, 2018; Oakland, CA, USA; Green Bay Packers cornerback Josh Jackson (37) reacts during a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.

“You’ve got to always have confidence, man, playing this position,” he added. “I’m confident in myself, what I can do, and I’m confident in my teammates. So, they expect me to go out and make plays.”

No position needed the addition of two quality rookies more than cornerback and the early signs are that Alexander and Jackson can add something to the group this season.

With Kevin King (provided he can stay healthy), Williams and Davon House ahead of them, Alexander and Jackson won’t have the stress come the first day of the regular season that others who came before them (such as Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, Micah Hyde and Casey Hayward) had when they joined much-thinner ranks.

But make no mistake about it, they were selected not just for their future contributions but what they could do for the Packers right now. The optimal scenario would be that at some point defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is forced to put Williams and House in secondary roles because the rookies are playing so well.

Pettine is a long way from that, especially because things will change drastically on the first Sunday of the regular season. The opposition will be probing for any weakness it can find, throwing out schemes and route combinations that are intended to confuse rookies.

And there will be weeks when they are matched up against players like Cooper most of the day and not just for one series.

“Both of these guys, they respect the game as much as possible but they fear nothing about it,” Williams said. “That’s the approach you have to take with this game because you’re going to face tough battles week in and week out and (if) you fear those battles you’re always going to come up on the short side.

“If you embrace those battles you have a chance.”

It was a good sign for the Packers then that neither Alexander nor the defense fell apart after giving up nearly half the field on the first play of the game. Oakland, with starting quarterback Derek Carr under center, got as far as the 4-yard line before outside linebacker Reggie Gilbert’s strip sack on third down made them settle for a field goal.

Playing a good number of starters the first half, Pettine saw his unit stuff running back Doug Martin twice inside the 5-yard line.

“They made a big play first play of the game and we stopped them in the red zone,” nose tackle Kenny Clark said. “I think we were put in a lot of situations we could have bent but we stayed strong and got the ball back to our offense. I think it’s really encouraging to see as a defense.”

Another one of those situations occurred early in the second quarter with the ball at the Packers 36. Backup quarterback Connor Cook had receiver Dwayne Harris running deep against Alexander on a similar route as Cooper had run on the first play.

Cook’s throw could have led Harris better, but it would have hit him in stride had Alexander not caught up and high-pointed the ball before it reached the receiver’s arms. It was not picture-perfect coverage, but it showed Alexander had the mental toughness to shake off the first play and be determined to make the next one.

“That’s what we’re here for,” Alexander said of him and Jackson. “We’re going to work and be better. Obviously, with our play, we still have work to do, but we’re showing good signs right now.”

Not everything was positive. Jackson had a holding penalty he didn’t need to commit to break up a third-down pass and Alexander got called for illegal contact that gave the Raiders a first down on third and 8.

But both corners, after working a lot in the slot during camp, got work on the outside, which is where they would have to play were they to replace a starter. So, regardless of the outcome, it was good work.

Soon all of that won’t be what matters. It will be about what they can do for the defense right now. Both are confident they won’t let their teammates down.

“We make plays,” Jackson said. “As long as you can keep making plays and keep doing the right thing and keep growing and minimize mistakes, I think that’s the way you earn trust.

“Just go hard each and every day and allow your teammates to respect you on and off the field.”


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