GREEN BAY – All alone in the end zone against the best receiver on the best offense in the NFL is not a place any rookie should want to be.
But then Green Bay Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander doesn’t perceive himself as your typical rookie. He exudes confidence. Has since the first day he entered the Packers' locker room after being drafted 18th overall this spring.
On Thursday afternoon, he practically choked on that word — rookie — when he heard it applied to him.
“Rookie, in my eyes,” Alexander said, “means first year in the league. That doesn’t mean that I play like a rookie. It doesn’t mean that I act like a rookie. That just means first year in the league.
“I don’t know where this rookie talk is coming from.”
So when Alexander was matched in single coverage Sunday against receiver Brandin Cooks in second quarter, and the Los Angeles Rams were taking a shot at the end zone with their best receiver, no, the Packers rookie cornerback didn’t panic. “I don’t panic,” Alexander said. The Rams had just converted a fake punt. One play later, coaches shouted out a warning from the sideline.
Watch the shot play.
So Alexander wasn’t surprised, either.
There was a brief moment Alexander thought the Rams might have other plans. Cooks slowed down on his route, selling his double move. Then the receiver who ran a 4.33-second 40 at the combine hit full speed, and the Packers corner who ran a 4.38 followed. Alexander matched Cooks stride for stride down the right seam, until it was clear the Rams’ shot play had devolved into more of a jump ball.
The rookie had just one more decision to make.
“Do I catch it,” Alexander asked himself, “or do I smack it? That was the only thing going through my mind, because I knew I was going to find it. Finding the ball is the easiest thing for me. I knew I was going to find it, so I was debating whether I wanted to try to go up with two hands to catch it, or just smack it down.”
For the record, Alexander smacked it down. It was one of five pass breakups he had in Los Angeles, something Alexander said he had never done in a game.
“I normally get picks,” he explained.
Regardless, Alexander had a put-me-on-the-map game against the Rams. Kevin King, the Packers' top pick last season, said it was clear their plan was to pick on Alexander. They liked having their best receiver against a rookie.
Once it was apparent Cooks, who was held to fewer catches (three) than Alexander had pass breakups, wasn’t going to win that battle, King said he was surprised the Rams never deviated from script.
“I’m not sure if that would be the game plan coming up,” King said. “Even throughout the game, I was kind of wondering, ‘Why are they throwing it to him so much?’”
It made sense the Rams entered wanting to pick on Alexander. He hadn’t played in a month, missing two games because of a groin injury. Even more, King has shown what he’s capable of when healthy.
On one of the rare occasions Rams quarterback Jared Goff took a shot against him, a third-and-5 early in the third quarter, King mirrored Cooks down the right sideline and forced an almost impossible catch. When All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters, a University of Washington alum like King, started jawing from the sideline after the play, King dug in his heels and spit trash right back.
They are brash, the Packers' young corners. They are nothing like the group that got run off the field in the 2016 NFC Championship game. If the secondary rebuild hasn’t fully arrived, it’s well on its way.
Together, King and Alexander might be enough to lift a Packers defense still punctured with glaring holes. On Sunday, they weren’t just locking down the perimeter. (The middle of the field, where the Packers' poor safety play continues to be a problem, was a different matter.) King and Alexander were the best things going for the Packers' pass rush. They consistently forced Goff to hold onto the football, allowing the Packers to sack him five times and hit him two more.
Kenny Clark, who had two sacks, said the Packers' defensive front felt like it was open season on Goff.
“It makes you feel like you’ve got a lot of freedom to do whatever, honestly,” Clark said. “Because those guys, they’re covering and you can kind of dial up some stuff too based on how long they’re going to hold the ball. You can run three-man games, or even the whole line can run games. So it’s different stuff you can do.”
There’s no guarantee the Packers' defense will limit the Patriots on Sunday. Tom Brady awaits in New England, and while Clark said he thought Goff and the Rams' offensive line were left guessing at times, it’s much harder to fool the Patriots' 19th-year quarterback. Brady has seen everything, including multiple games in the past against Packers first-year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
But it’s easy to predict what the Packers would like to do. Any time a defense has gotten the better of Brady, it has been able to pressure him.
“Their offense is built around timing,” linebacker Clay Matthews said, “and they get the ball out super quick. As a pass rusher, you normally want something like 2.2 to 2.4 (seconds). That ball is coming out.”
The Packers' best chance in New England is to force Brady to hold the ball a tick longer, allowing their pass rush to catch him. The same as they did last week. The Packers held Goff to 19-for-35 passing, a 54.3 percent clip that was his second-lowest this season. Only the Denver Broncos’ notoriously stingy defense did better (50 percent).
On Goff’s 16 incompletions, he held onto the football for an average of 3.3 seconds. (Only six were less than three seconds snap to pass.) Goff, unable to find open receivers, held onto the football an average of 3.1 seconds on his five sacks. If the Packers cover like that Sunday night, it could be enough to escape New England with an upset win.
Alexander’s emergence gives them a chance.
“He’s a great player,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s going to have a great career in this league. We thought that in the draft. I thought that was an excellent pick, it was a little bit ahead of where we were picking and he was certainly one of the top players on the board.
“I think he’ll be one of the top corners in the game for a quite a while here.”