GREEN BAY - It’s hard to pin the fortunes of a football team on a single player unless he’s a quarterback, but if rookie cornerback Jaire Alexander is the budding talent he appeared to be last week in Los Angeles, the Green Bay Packers could be back in business this year.
Alexander can’t tilt the field the way Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady might Sunday in Foxborough, but he is the right man in the right place at the right time for a Packers team that has yet to play a complete game during its 3-3-1 start.
The Packers loaded up on cornerback this offseason hoping to avoid the disaster that got defensive coordinator Dom Capers and most of his staff fired. They signed free agent Tramon Williams, re-signed veteran Davon House and then selected Alexander and Josh Jackson with their first two draft picks.
When the injury bug hit House, Alexander and Kevin King, general manager Brian Gutekunst wasted no time. He signed free agent Bashaud Breeland and elevated Tony Brown from the practice squad.
The Packers now have six true cornerbacks on the roster and a safety, Jermaine Whitehead, who often functions more as a corner than a safety. The only true safeties left on the roster after starter Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was traded to Washington are Kentrell Brice, Josh Jones and Raven Greene.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine goes into a meeting with the 6-2 Patriots on Sunday night being all-in at the cornerback position. Williams will move from starting outside corner to starting free safety in place of Clinton-Dix, but his man-to-man coverage ability undoubtedly will still be used.
King, whose play has gradually gotten better since his return from a groin injury, will start at one outside spot. Breeland is expected to play for the first time this season and he and Whitehead will move in and out of various positions.
Which brings us back to Alexander.
If Gutekunst had any reservations about trading Clinton-Dix, they evaporated when Alexander functioned like a shutdown corner against Brandin Cooks, one of the fastest receivers in the NFL. Not only did the 5-10, 196-pound rookie break up five passes, he made seven tackles, including a sideline hit on Tyler Higbee that knocked the 6-6, 243-pound tight end in the air and onto his backside.
A day after the 29-27 defeat to the Rams, Williams was asked which of the rookie’s plays did he appreciate the most. He didn’t hesitate for a second.
“The tackle,” Williams said. “That was a tone-setter. He’s bigger than a lot of people think he is. You look at his height and you’re like, ‘Ah, he’s not that big,’ but he’s got a little weight behind him. He plays with that aggressiveness. Aggressiveness is part of his character.”
That’s a good trait to have when facing the Patriots.
Some scouts and coaches around the league took notice of Alexander’s performance Sunday, as much out of curiosity as game-planning or scouting. A handful of teams thought highly of him in the draft despite his struggles last year at Louisville because of a bone bruise that occurred when he hyperextended his knee.
One NFL college scout whose team picked higher in the first round but liked Alexander later in the round watched the game on television and came away impressed.
“Alexander looked really good,” he said. “Speed, man skills and ball skills really stood out. That was a nice addition to the secondary and he can play man, which I know (Pettine) really likes.
“What concerned people coming out was his transition. He was a little tight, but he has the speed to sit on routes because he knows he can recover. I think he’s better served playing outside. Less transition. He shouldn’t need help deep.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick was even more effusive in his praise of Alexander, although he tends to gush about upcoming opponents. He said Alexander was one of the top players on New England’s draft board when the Packers selected him with the 18th pick.
Despite the praise, the reality is that Alexander is still going to take his lumps this season. Cooks got him once for a long gain and bigger receivers with better route-running skills are going to get the best of him as the season goes on.
But the timing part is where this comes together for the Packers.
Now that King is healthy, Pettine has two young, athletic starters to man the outside position and Williams to serve as a safety valve. Moving Williams to safety means Pettine gets to find out if Breeland, a full-time starter each of his first four years in the NFL, can play the slot or serve in a hybrid safety role.
At 5-11, 195 pounds, Breeland carried some weight in his pads for Washington and wasn’t afraid to mix it up. His speed isn’t great (4.62 seconds in the 40-yard dash), but his forte is press coverage and he averaged 15 pass deflections a season before joining the Packers.
Because Alexander has taken off, there’s no pressure to force Breeland into action. If he’s not any good, Pettine can go with Jackson or Whitehead in the slot.
Whitehead has been used there a lot this year because of the injuries to Alexander and King. He is questionable with a back injury and his status won’t be known until game time.
The 6-foot, 196-pound Jackson got valuable snaps there earlier in the year and may have the best ball skills of any of the defensive backs. Jackson doesn’t always trust himself in man coverage and gets caught holding receivers too often, but he is someone who can cover a big, physical receiver and might even be an option for covering Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Even Brown wasn’t half bad when he had to play seven snaps against Detroit several weeks ago.
The bottom line is that Pettine has options in the secondary.
It’s not unlike the crew Pettine and head coach Rex Ryan had when they beat the Patriots in a divisional playoff game on Jan. 16, 2011. The Jets had 11 defensive backs active for that game and they used 10 against quarterback Tom Brady, deploying them all over the middle of the field.
What made it possible to do so was having two outside corners -- Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie – able to play man coverage and take away the deep-ball option. With the outside secure, Pettine and Ryan were able to keep a safety near the line of scrimmage to stop the run on early downs and blitz corners and safeties on passing downs.
King and Alexander are not Revis and Cromartie, but they will try to do the same thing the Jets corners did that day. If they can hold up then it will be up to the rest of the crew – there could be as many as 10 defensive backs active – to defend against Gronkowski, running back James White and the slot receivers.
“When you play the style of defense that we play, a lot of times it’s going to be press-man on the outside with a single safety in the post,” Pettine said. “Those guys (outside corners) have to be able to hold up. If you don’t have that where you feel good about it, then you’ve got to start rolling help one way or the other, or you’ve got to start playing more Cover-2 or kind of combination coverages where they’re getting safety help.
“That affects you elsewhere. When you can essentially play 9-against-9, that allows you to obviously direct more assets towards the run.”
Pettine faced the Patriots 11 times while either a defensive coordinator or head coach and won just three games. But Brady’s statistics against his teams weren’t off the charts.
Brady completed 259 of 415 passes (60.9 percent) for 3,041 yards and 21 touchdowns with seven interceptions. His passer rating of 97.48 in those games matches almost exactly his career rating of 97.6, which isn’t bad considering some of the mediocre teams Pettine was a part of in New York and Buffalo.
When the Packers take the field against the Patriots on Sunday night, Pettine will have an opportunity to better his record against Brady. Thanks to Alexander, his options to do so will be much greater than they were just a few weeks ago.