4 Downs: Jaire Alexander's performance elevates Packers' defense
Each week I’ll share four observations the day after the Green Bay Packers' game. Here they are after the Packers’ 29-27 loss Sunday at the Los Angeles Rams:
We don’t know if defensive coordinator Mike Pettine flip-flopped cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Tramon Williams just for the matchup with the Rams’ receivers, but based on the results Sunday it’s something he might stick with.
Until this week, Alexander, when healthy, had been playing the slot and Williams was on the outside. But Sunday, Alexander played on the outside and Williams in the slot, and Alexander had by far the best game of his rookie year. His explosiveness and speed really showed up on the outside whether it was on deep balls, crossing routes or any kind of pattern all over the field. He had five breakups, including one in the end zone in one-on-one coverage against the explosive Brandin Cooks.
With Alexander, Williams and Kevin King all healthy for the first time in a while, Pettine didn’t even use rookie cornerback Josh Jackson. The Packers are going to need Jackson at some point, probably sooner rather than later. If they have concerns about the 35-year-old Williams’ wearing down as the season goes on, they could use Jackson to spell him. Or because of Jackson’s size, they might play him in the slot regularly when facing a good tight end, like they will be next week against New England. But no matter what they do, they saw Alexander stand out as an outside cover man Sunday.
Punter Johnny Hekker was one of the Rams’ best weapons Sunday. He put on a clinic in pooch punting by dropping two punts inside the Packers’ 5 in the second quarter, including the one that Sam Shields downed inside the Packers’ 1 that led to a huge safety. Hekker also completed a pass on a fake punt that converted a fourth down, though that shouldn’t have surprised Packers special teams coach Ron Zook and his players. Hekker now has thrown 17 passes in his seven-year career, and on his 12-yard completion to Shields he looked like a guy who’s comfortable throwing the football. The call probably was predicated on how the Packers played the punt, and on that one King as the jammer lined up about 10 yards off Shields whether than trying to jam him at the line of scrimmage. Then after taking off downfield, Shields broke off an out pattern and was open for Hekker’s sharp throw.The Rams didn’t score on that drive, but it did put Hekker in position to pin the Packers’ on their 4 with a punt a few plays later.
Former second-round pick Josh Jones hasn’t been able to get on the field defensively, but if he keeps playing like he did on special teams Sunday maybe he’ll get a chance tat linebacker or safety. Jones, who ran the 40 in 4.41 seconds at the NFL scouting combine two years ago, was the first man downfield on the Packers’ first kickoff of the day, which allowed Oren Burks to drop Blake Countess at the Rams’ 11 when the return man reversed field to avoid Jones. Then on a second-quarter punt Jones as a gunner was the first man downfield and dropped JoJo Natson for no gain on the return.
The Rams’ Aaron Donald was the best defensive player on the field Sunday and had two sacks, but Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark was nearly as good. Clark was a big reason the Packers kept the league’s best running back, Todd Gurley, in check for most of the game. When not double teamed, Clark repeatedly whipped Rams center John Sullivan and finished the game with five tackles, including two sacks.