Packers' rookie cornerbacks earning Mike Pettine's trust on big stage

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander (23) celebrates with linebacker Nick Perry (53) after a Chicago Bears fumble in the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field on Sunday, September 9, 2018 in Green Bay, Wis.
Adam Wesley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

GREEN BAY - If there’s anything defensive coordinators hate more than having to rely on a rookie in their secondary, it’s having to rely on two rookies in their secondary.

Green Bay Packers coordinator Mike Pettine, asked if he was averse to playing rookies, responded quickly and emphatically.

“If they can’t play, I’m very averse to playing them,” he said.

It turns out Pettine has a very high opinion of the team’s top two draft choices, Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, because he played them a lot in the season opener against Chicago. Of the 70 defensive snaps, Alexander played 49 and Jackson 46.

It’s not like Pettine didn’t have alternatives, either.

Veteran Davon House did not play a single snap from scrimmage despite Pettine playing 38 snaps with either six or seven defensive backs on the field. He also had the option of playing safety Jermaine Whitehead more because Whitehead (25 snaps) can play slot corner.

"If they can play, especially the way the league is now, we’re not a farm team,” Pettine said. “Guys have to play now. Certainly, our two pups on the back end, they both, from the beginning, jumped right in.

“It’s never been too big for them.”

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The biggest question Pettine had was how they would succeed now that teams were going to throw their most creative schemes and best receivers at them, which was a far cry from what happened in the exhibition season.

The Packers have seen rookie corners struggle, but it became clear in training camp that they were not overmatched. Both played at big schools — Alexander at Louisville and Jackson at Iowa — and had been exposed to big games in front of big crowds and huge television audiences.

“They love football and they compete,” Pettine said. “I think that showed up in the game. That was the only question we had left — they competed in the preseason, they do it in practice — will they blink when the lights were on?

“Obviously, we all got that answer. We’re in the business of putting our best 11 out there. If a rookie falls into that category, then so be it.”

It’s not that the night went perfectly for either player. Both made assignment errors that could have bled into big plays had the Bears capitalized on them. Alexander also gave up a 33-yard completion to veteran receiver Allen Robinson.

But the Packers only gave up 155 yards net passing against second-year pro Mitch Trubisky and only two receptions of 20 or more yards. They did not come up with any interceptions or force any fumbles.

Most encouraging for Pettine, there were no plays where it looked like either of the two rookies were overmatched.

“Obviously, we were competing for a job,” Jackson said. “We had a lot of reps coming. All those different things we saw, adjustments the offense made, helped get us ready to play. Anytime you’re a rookie, you’re expected to be ready to play.”

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Jackson admitted that the times the two were in man coverage life weren’t as difficult as when a zone was called. Luckily for them, they had Tramon Williams and Kevin King to do the heavy lifting against Robinson, the Bears’ top receiver.

But they helped in covering veteran Taylor Gabriel and talented rookie Anthony Miller, too.

The game Sunday against the Vikings will present a whole new bundle of challenges with veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins throwing to the receiving trio of Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Laquon Treadwell.

Thielen caught six passes for 102 yards and Diggs three for 43, including a 22-yard touchdown, in a 24-16 victory against the San Francisco 49ers. The Vikings probably won’t display as much college-type weirdness with their offense as the Bears did, but they undoubtedly saved something new to use against the Packers.

“We know we’re going to get some more unscouted looks,” Williams said. “It’s just what teams do whether it’s a regular game or a division game. Some teams tend to save things for a division game.

“We know we’re going to get certain looks and different looks and our technique and our alignment and assignment need to take us through the downs. That’s what we have to count on.”

And, it seems based on Pettine’s confidence in them, the two rookies, too.


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