GREEN BAY - It would be a shame if Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine didn’t get to work with rookie cornerback Jaire Alexander for another three years.
Pettine has had the pleasure – and the good judgment – of making Alexander a potential centerpiece of the Packers defense for years to come. He, like interim coach Joe Philbin, faces career uncertainty following the firing of head coach Mike McCarthy and may be working for someone else next season.
But it hasn’t stopped him from doing right by the Packers.
Pettine not only has given the plucky Alexander a canvas in which to display his substantial talent, he has exposed him to some of the world’s most magnificent artists.
Never mind the pressure, in covering the virtuosity of the Los Angeles’ Robert Woods, Seattle’s Doug Baldwin, Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs and Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, Alexander has been getting a Chicago Art Institute education.
On Sunday, Pettine doubled down. He decided to match up Alexander with Atlanta receiver Julio Jones, the toughest cover on the planet. He didn’t just have Alexander shadow Jones, he had him cover one-on-one on multiple occasions.
“I like that match-up between he and Julio,” cornerback Bashaud Breeland said after the Packers broke a three-game losing streak with a 34-20 victory over the Falcons on Sunday at Lambeau Field. “I would take that bet on him every time. He’s just a young guy who really has it.”
The box score says that Jones caught eight passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns, but what it doesn’t say is that 47 of those yards came on receptions that Philbin challenged after replays seemed to show the catches weren’t good.
On both plays, Alexander’s coverage was glove tight and against anyone not named Julio Jones might not have been close to completions. Both were ruled completions.
“I’ll take that nine times out of 10, 10 times out of 10,” Alexander said of his coverage. “Other than the catch, I’d take it 9 out of 10.”
Alexander came to work on Tuesday and was told by passing game coordinator Joe Whitt that he would be shadowing Jones. Usually, that means he’s going to have help from a safety over the top in most cases, but neither Whitt nor Pettine promised that.
And as the game played out, Pettine left Alexander in one-on-one coverage a surprising number of times.
After studying Jones on tape, Alexander went for broke. He decided he needed to get up in the 6-3, 220-pound Jones’ face. Alexander is 5-10 and 196 pounds.
“(He’s a) big, physical, fast receiver,” Alexander said. “A lot of people were giving him a lot of respect, a little bit too much. I saw that on film. Anytime I got up there and challenged him, that was a bigger difficulty (for him).
“When I played off, I gave up that touchdown.”
The 12-yard score came with 13:34 left in the fourth quarter and the Packers comfortably ahead, 34-7. Alexander tried to undercut the route and didn’t get their quickly enough, allowing Jones to pluck the ball near the sideline and jog into the end zone.
Until that catch, quarterback Matt Ryan was 1 of 3 for 8 yards throwing to Jones in the second half.
“They mixed it up,” Ryan said of the coverages. “At certain times they had help over the top to limit some of the explosive plays. We also had some opportunities to hit him (one-on-one). We had some chances.”
It’s not to say that Jones couldn’t have had a much bigger day had a couple of things gone his way.
Alexander got lucky twice on a pair of deep balls, one which was caught for a 32-yard gain with the rookie running a half-step behind only to be nullified by a holding penalty. Another deep post route in the third quarter might have been a 71-yard touchdown, but Ryan overthrew the pass.
“That’s Julio,” Alexander said. “That man is fast.”
Even if Jones had caught them, a little perspective would be in order.
Last year, he had five catches for 108 yards in a blowout win. In the NFC Championship, against the Packers two years ago, he caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns. In 2014, he caught 11 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown at Lambeau Field.
The fact Pettine was confident enough to have a rookie shadow Jones said a lot about his trust in him and where he’s headed in his career.
“I was very confident, very confident,” safety Josh Jones said of Alexander. “Because Jaire is a good corner. He’ll continue to be a good corner in this league and obviously he’s showing that on a week-to-week basis.”
Pettine had to be holding his breath as the first series unfolded.
Of the two receptions that were upheld by replay, Alexander swore both were incomplete. On the first, Jones briefly had control of the ball but lost it on his way down after Alexander tried to pull it out.
The rule says you don’t have to complete the catch to the ground as long as you establish yourself and make a football move, which can be defined as a third step or tucking the ball away.
“I’m not sure that if the ball would have landed in the field of play if they would have called that a fumble or it would be an incompletion,” Alexander said. “That’s neither here nor there, it’s still a catch. I just have to do a little better.”
The second one was close and the replay looked like Jones might have stepped out of bounds with his second foot down. But it wasn’t conclusive. So, coming out of the gate, Alexander had given up catches of 28 and 19 yards in man coverage against Jones.
Then on first and goal at the 16, Ryan hit Jones on a crossing route and no one came close to stopping him short of the goal line. It was a zone coverage and Alexander’s responsibility was on the opposite side of the field.
From that point on, Alexander battled. He pressed both with his hands to try to knock Jones off balance and with his feet to make Jones run through or around him.
“Me being, I guess, a smaller corner or whatever, I guess he wanted to out-physical me,” Alexander said. “But when I got up there in his face it wasn’t as easy as he thought it was.”
After the game, Alexander said Jones spoke with him on the field.
“He was telling me, keep doing what I’m doing,” Alexander said. “He was telling me, ‘The sky is the limit.’ It was all good things.”
And it should only get better. Alexander has learned a ton covering some of the top receivers in the NFL – even if not all of it has gone in his favor -- and when he returns next season, he might emerge as the Packers’ best defensive player.
Too bad Pettine might not be there to see it.