Game-saving interception puts stamp on impressive day for Packers' young cornerbacks
GREEN BAY – Jaire Alexander, diamond-studded earrings with his No. 23 in both ears, eye black still covering his cheeks, plopped himself on a table next to his locker. The sweat had barely dried from hair peaking over his black, NFL headband. He rested two bare feet on cushioned seats.
The Green Bay Packers cornerback was feeling himself in this moment. That sweat was replaced with swagger. It was oozing as Alexander stared into cameras and didn’t hold back.
“You check out my one-on-one coverage,” he said. “I was on them boys all day.”
Down the locker room, Kevin King wasn’t feeling too bad, either. He perched himself atop a clothes hamper, feet dangling, chilling after the Packers’ 21-16 win against the Minnesota Vikings.
King had the signature play Sunday. It was a play that started with him being beat. In the end zone, Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs had a step on the Packers’ third-year cornerback. King knew Diggs was open. He knew Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins was throwing him the football.
A lesser cornerback might have panicked. “We’ve had some guys over the years,” Aaron Rodgers would later say, “when that big, stud receiver was coming to town, they might not be up for that challenge.” So here was the Vikings’ big, stud receiver, open in the end zone, the Packers clinging to their five-point lead. Just five minutes left in the fourth quarter.
“He had a step on me,” King said. “I looked at the quarterback and knew he was going to throw it. So I just put my head down and tried to run to it, and the ball was there.”
King closed with his 4.43 speed. He used his size to create leverage, shrinking Cousins’ throwing window. Then he did something that has eluded him over the years, jumping over Diggs to make a play on the football.
A week ago, King dropped what would’ve been a critical interception in Chicago, a turnover that would have given the Packers’ struggling offense a short field. Falling in the end zone Sunday, two hands clutched on Cousins’ pass, King cradled this interception to his chest. The ball popped out after his back smacked the ground. There was a replay review.
Was King ever worried he’d dropped another interception?
“No,” he said, sitting atop that hamper, “I wasn’t nervous. Hell yeah, I knew I caught it.”
And he did.
King’s second career pick put a signature stamp on what was an overwhelmingly impressive day for the pair of young Packers cornerbacks. In the past, Vikings receivers Diggs and Adam Thielen have turned Lambeau Field into their own personnel playground. Thielen had at least 125 yards and a touchdown in both games against the Packers last season. He had 202 yards and two touchdowns on 12 catches in a Christmas Eve game at Lambeau Field in 2016. Diggs hasn’t been far behind. The last time he was in Green Bay, Diggs was catching nine passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns.
The Packers didn’t shut out Diggs and Thielen for four quarters. Against maybe the NFL’s best receiving tandem – they were the only teammates to each catch 100 passes last year – that rarely happens. Diggs had just one catch on seven targets, but it was a 45-yard touchdown. “I lost it in the sun,” said Alexander, who almost intercepted Cousins’ pass in the end zone. Thielen added 75 yards on five receptions.
What the Vikings tandem did to the Packers secondary Sunday – six catches, 120 yards, the touchdown – was nowhere near the kind of production Thielen and Diggs have gotten in the past. For that, the Packers could thank their pair of blossoming cornerbacks. Alexander, who had two defended passes and almost added an interception that would have ended the game, knew what he and King had just accomplished.
“Kevin King, he’s a baller,” Alexander said. “He’s hot right now. Shoot, I mean, he’s putting everybody on notice as well. Me and him, shoot, the best tandem in the league, I feel like. Go watch the play-by-play.
“We strapped them boys up.”
Bombastic? Perhaps. Cocky? Of course. But Alexander’s confidence certainly isn’t unreasonable. Not after what he and King did the past two weeks.
While the Packers’ newfound pass rush has given their defense a huge face lift, the lockdown coverage in the secondary is every bit as valuable, if not more. Alexander and King are linchpins in the Packers defense for several reasons, starting with their own, individual talent, but what makes them special might be how they complement each other.
Alexander, standing a hair short of 5-10, is pure speed, blanketing the field like a track star. He’s not going to muscle up any receiver at the line of scrimmage, but he doesn’t need to. “He’s faster than Kev,” Rodgers said. That physicality is King’s game. King can run, sure, but his size, length and strength are a nightmare for receivers who are accustomed to overpowering a cornerback. Nobody is overpowering King.
Then there are the shared traits. Ball skills. An unshakeable confidence. Alexander and King are the corners who want to be matched against the offense’s top receiver. Every week. No exceptions. It’s been that way since their rookie seasons.
Both have the awareness to handle that challenge.
“I think the thing that separates them from maybe other corner tandems is the football IQ,” Rodgers said, “just understanding route concepts and break points and tendencies.”
Rodgers compared King to Al Harris, the master of press-man technique. Harris’ strength overwhelmed many opponents. He didn’t need to beat them with speed.
The quarterback saved an even more special comparison for Alexander. At least in terms of how the second-year corner plays the game.
“Wood and Ja are very similar,” Rodgers said, referencing future hall of famer Charles Woodson. “I’m not going to compare them because Charles, in my opinion, is the greatest player I’ve ever played with, and one of the greatest of all time. The ability to diagnose stuff quickly, like Charles, Ja does. He’s got really good ball skills.
“And the thing that all great corners have is confidence.”
Nobody was shaking Alexander’s confidence Sunday afternoon. King, neither. That swagger clung to them, the way they clung to Thielen and Diggs.
Best cornerback tandem in the league? That’s bold.
If both can stay healthy, a big if given King’s extensive injury history, it might be attainable.
“Why not?” Tramon Williams, the secondary’s elder statesman, asked. “… Talented, man. Very talented. Both want to be great. Both have the ability to be great. And both will be great. This foundation is really set.”