Packers cornerback Josh Jackson getting chance to audition for starting role in 2021

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GREEN BAY - There has been a lot of focus on the impending free agency of cornerback Kevin King, and rightfully so. The talented fourth-year corner out of Washington intercepted five passes in 15 games last year and got off to a strong start through the first three-and-a-half games this season before injuring a quadriceps in the first half against Atlanta.

With King expected to miss his third straight game with the injury, third-year cornerback Josh Jackson is getting an opportunity to show the Packers he could be ready to step in to start opposite Jaire Alexander in 2021.

Jackson will likely start Sunday against Minnesota after head coach Matt LaFleur said King suffered a setback in his recovery at the end of last week, giving the 2018 second-round pick out of Iowa a chance to show he’s leveling out his play.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Scott Miller (10) gets hit by Green Bay Packers cornerback Josh Jackson (37) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Tampa, Fla.

“He’s stepped up and he’s done some real good things for us,” Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. “And not just coverage-wise. He’s triggered and made some plays in the run game and he’s done a real nice job getting guys on the ground. We’re pleased. And that’s the role of corner in our defense (and) obviously is an important one and there’s a lot put on them. We’re not just one of those Cover-2 teams where they’re not playing a lot of on-top man, or they’re not matched up or (they are) kind of put on an island, Cover-1, things like that. He’s responded and a lot of it’s been a credit to him and his preparation. Knowing that he was the guy he made sure he really dug into the details and fortunately for us it’s paid off.”

Jackson started 10 games as a rookie and broke up 10 passes and forced a fumble. But he was more of a role player last season as King stayed healthy, and the 24-year-old Jackson didn’t always look smooth in coverage.

But after being pressed into duty beginning in the second half against Atlanta on Oct. 5, when he missed several tackles, Packers coaches feel he has improved each week. Jackson made six tackles against Tampa Bay but had a couple of issues in coverage, including a long pass interference penalty that set up a score.

“We’re going to help ‘Jacko’ out a little bit, we’re going to give him a little cloud coverage,” Packers defensive backs coach Jerry Gray said. “That’s what our job is. Our job is to go out and win the football game and know who our players are and not leave them high and dry.”

In 68 snaps against Houston, Jackson made four tackles (including a tackle for loss) and the Texans were never able to get their downfield pass game going.

The 132 snaps over two games is the most Jackson has played on defense since November 2018.

“As long as he’s playing aggressive and confident he’s going to be good, and he has been good,” safety Adrian Amos said. “He stepped up and made a lot of great tackles and played well in coverage.”

Crosby still sidelined

For the second straight day, kicker Mason Crosby did not take part in practice because of calf and back injuries.

A source said the calf injury is the most troublesome, but that it isn’t overly serious.

However, LaFleur and the medical staff have tread lightly when bringing players back from injury to help keep small ones from becoming big ones.

Crosby attended practice after not doing so Wednesday. He worked out with the training and conditioning staff inside the Don Hutson Center while the team practiced outside.

“I’m confident that Mason will be able to go,” said special teams coach Shawn Mennenga, who indicated that Crosby hurt his calf during the game Sunday at Houston.

There are multiple ways the Packers can go if Crosby can’t play or he aggravates the injury during the game. Among them are using punter JK Scott or signing rookie Nick Vogel, who is scheduled to go through a tryout with the personnel department Saturday.

It’s likely Mennenga will let Crosby test out his leg in the next 24 hours.

“Obviously, we’re preparing for a bunch of different scenarios and going through a lot of different things and working guys in different things,” Mennenga said. “We’re going to have a plan for whatever happens. We’ve got multiple plans going.”

In other injury news, it doesn’t appear running back Aaron Jones (calf) will be returning this week. He did not practice for a second straight day.

LaFleur said Wednesday that he would be very cautious with Jones and unless he does something in practice Friday, it’s practically a guarantee he won’t play against the Vikings. The Packers play the following Thursday against San Francisco, which might be the goal for his return.

As for the other dozen or so players on the injury report who did take part in the padded practice, only tight end Robert Tonyan (ankle) was moved from a limited participant to a full participant. Among those who have a shot at returning after missing or leaving the Houston game are tackle David Bakhtiari (chest), safety Darnell Savage (thigh), linebacker Krys Barnes (shoulder/biceps), safety Raven Greene (oblique) and NT Tyler Lancaster (shoulder).

Blocked up

Mennenga said he tries hard to tell the practice squad players that they shouldn’t take it for granted that their performance won’t affect their playing time.

He now has a slide to emphasize what he means.

It is of running back Dexter Williams missing a block on the edge and allowing one of Scott’s punts to be blocked against the Texans. Williams was making his first appearance of the year after getting a game-day call-up from the practice squad.

“The snap brought him over to the right; the operation time was a lot longer than what it normally is or what it needed to be,” Mennenga explained. “That was the first problem and then obviously the slot (Williams) getting beat off the edge, needs to make that block and widen him up the field.

“It’s unfortunate that it happened. Those things tear a special teams coach up. It’s like scars that never heal. But it’s over with, we’ve got it corrected and we’ll move on.”

Going beyond the stats

Preston Smith is still stuck on a half sack this season. He has been stalled there since Week 2, when he helped bring down Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. Since then, the Packers outside linebacker who had a dozen sacks last season has been shut out. 

But Smith did have a rather significant quarterback tackle for loss last week in Houston. It wasn’t a sack, as Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson was on a designed run, not a passer. But Smith’s tackle of Watson on a fourth-and-1 speed option in the fourth quarter was perhaps the defense’s biggest play, helping to preserve a 35-20 win. 

“We knew they were going to go for it on fourth-and-1,” Smith said, “and they were trying to get some form of momentum to help their offense put together a scoring drive. On that play, I saw the tackle block down, I saw the speed option, and I just knew I had to be patient with it. I couldn’t be aggressive early on. I just had to wait for the play to develop, and wait for my moment to strike, and make the tackle.” 

It was one of only three tackles for Smith against the Texans, though he might have had his most active game of the season. He helped stop the Texans on a third-and-1 run play early in Sunday’s game and provided pressure on a Za’Darius Smith sack midway through.  

Preston Smith has just 12 tackles, and his tackle of Watson is his only one all season for loss. His lack of stats has become a weekly discussion topic. 

“I think a lot of it is always put into the production, into the numbers,” LaFleur said, “and I don’t think that always tells the whole story. I think when sacks come, they come in bunches. I think that you look at pressures and just what you’re asking certain players to do, and you evaluate them on whether or not they do their job.

“I think Preston’s done a lot of great things. I think there’s always room for improvement.” 

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