Packers offense preparing for man-to-man competition against NFL's top secondary

Kassidy Hill
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY − “Imagine somebody standing right next to you the whole time you’re running a route.”

That’s how Green Bay Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas describes the play of the Philadelphia Eagles' Darius Slay, a sticky man corner who sits in a receiver’s hip pocket and forces them to beat him with 50-50 balls.

“That’s how he play,” Douglas said. “He plays man-to-man football. That’s him all the way. Put him on your best guy and that’s what he wants to do and he’s comfortable with that matchup every week.”

Douglas and Slay never played in a game together but spent time as offseason teammates in Philadelphia, becoming fast and long friends. Now, as the Packers (4-7) prepare for a trip to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles (9-1), the struggling Green Bay offense will be tasked with game-planning around a defensive backs unit that few have gotten the better of.

“They get up in your face, they’ll press you. They’ll play a lot of man,” running back Aaron Jones said Thursday. “They challenge you and make you make plays and compete.”

Philadelphia Eagles' Darius Slay celebrates his interception against the Dallas Cowboys.

Led by Slay, James Bradberry and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, this Eagles defense has put together a secondary that has become lock-down on even the league’s best receivers. Bradberry has 12 passes defended and three interceptions through 10 games, Slay has notched nine defended passes and three interceptions and Gardner-Johnson has eight passes defended with a league-leading six interceptions.

As a team, the Eagles lead the league with a plus-12 turnover margin. The defense also has a league-leading total 21 takeaways and 13 interceptions. The Packers offense has given up 15 turnovers through 11 games with a minus-four margin.

“I think a lot of their interceptions and turnovers come from disrupting the quarterback and just playing aggressive football,” Packers receiver Allen Lazard said. “Being at the point of attack, or the point of the catch, causing tips and stuff like that. So I think we just stay disciplined on our routes and we're able to protect very well that I think, you know, in that category it should be in our favor.”

Still, when someone has those sort of numbers, Gardner-Johnson in particular, it creates a confidence that opponents must fight as much as technique. Packers receivers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers got an opportunity to see Gardner-Johnson up close this summer when he was with the New Orleans Saints and spent three days in a joint training camp in Green Bay. It left an impression.

“He brings a lot of attitude, a lot of swag, a lot of tenacity and kind of an edge I think he brings to the secondary,” Lazard said of Gardner-Johnson. “He’s a good player and he's made some good plays this year and everything so it'll be great to go against him.”

While with the Saints, Gardner-Johnson was used primarily as a slot corner. With the Eagles, the versatile defensive back has dropped back more as a pure safety. It means he’s playing center field, giving him easy access to overthrows. That is not lost on Rodgers, who has thrown seven interceptions this season.

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“He's still doing a lot of things that he's been doing in the league,” Rodgers said. “He tackles well, he covers well. But more vision to the football with the pass rush, more vision to the football. He's had more opportunities down the field. And he's got good hands, made the most of his chances down the field.”

If the Philadelphia defense’s plan is predicated on the pass rush, then the task rests with the Packers front line to strike first.

“Coming off the ball, playing with urgency and it’s gonna start as soon as we get there and that’s gonna set the tone for us,” Jones said of the plan. “And we feel up front, that’s where it starts on both sides of the ball.”

Added Lazard, “I think we go into most games, you know, to kind of worry about ourselves. You obviously study our opponents and have a lot of respect for them and the things that they do. You have to take into account for their style of play and their techniques and whatnot, but we just know we go out there and play our brand of football, though, everything will take care of itself.”

The Eagles are second in the league in passing defense, giving up 178.4 yards per game. But they’re in the middle of the pack in rushing defense, allowing 122.2 yards per game. It could allow the Packers a chance to game plan much like they did in the most recent win against the Dallas Cowboys.

Whether up front or in the defensive backfield, though, the Eagles defense has created an identity of aggressiveness and sticky coverage. It leaves the Packers with a downfield game plan that can be easy to grasp and tough to employ.

Said Jones, “At the end of the day, when you’re in a one-on-one, that’s what it comes down to, competing."

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