Packers' Jaire Alexander backs up trash talk, does the Griddy in thwarting Justin Jefferson
GREEN BAY – At the start of the week, as he contemplated how the Green Bay Packers were going to cover Justin Jefferson, defensive coordinator Joe Barry decided to learn from the past. He met with Jaire Alexander, met with Rasul Douglas, and chose to do something he should’ve four months ago.
A lot of questionable judgment led to Jefferson embarrassing the Packers defense in their opener at the Minnesota Vikings. At the top of the list was a lack of trust. Barry had the highest-paid cornerback in NFL history. He had another veteran who’d seen everything the league could throw at him. Instead of relying on his stars, the pillars of his defense, Barry handed them training wheels.
He wasn’t repeating the mistake of shielding Alexander from arguably the NFL’s top receiver again, not after Jefferson torched his zone coverage for nine catches, 184 yards and two touchdowns in Week 1. This time, Barry did what all successful coaches sometimes must. He got out of the way, telling Alexander and Douglas it was their choice who covered the league's most dominant receiver.
“At the beginning of the week,” Douglas said, “Coach was like, ‘Ja, you want to follow him? You and Rasul talk it out. Whatever y’all want to do, I’m cool with.’”
Immediately, Alexander confirmed he wanted Jefferson. All season, knowing the Vikings were looming at the end, he’d been desperate for a chance to shut down the three-time Pro Bowler. The frustration burned inside after Week 1, leading to a meeting with Barry so he could vent.
Douglas told his teammate to sleep on it. Get back to him later in the week, when kickoff was close. On Friday, he was sitting in the cold tub at Lambeau Field when Alexander approached him. He told Douglas he was covering Jefferson.
By Alexander's tone, Douglas said he could tell it wasn't up for discussion..
“I wasn’t about to sit and argue with him,” Douglas said. “I know Ja and I always tell him, ‘I know exactly what Ja that I’m going to get when I look at you.’ He always says, ‘What, you know?’ I go, ‘I’m looking at you, bro. I can see what’s going on.’
“Ja came up to me and said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to follow him.’ I just said, ‘I already know.’”
Justin Jefferson limited to worst game of his career
Alexander shadowed Jefferson from the start Sunday, switching sides of the field each snap. If Jefferson was on the right, Alexander matched him. On the left, he matched. In the slot, Alexander lined up inside.
The result was not only a 41-17 Packers win, a victory that enables them to control their playoff fate in next week’s finale against the Detroit Lions, but also the worst game of Jefferson’s three-year NFL career. Jefferson entered Lambeau Field with 123 catches, 1,756 yards and eight touchdowns in 15 games. He had one catch for 15 yards Sunday with Alexander matching him most of the way. The lone catch came when the Packers played a rare zone coverage.
It was the first time in Jefferson’s 49-game career he didn’t have multiple receptions. For only the second time in his career, Jefferson had fewer than 20 receiving yards. The look in Alexander’s eye, the determination Douglas recognized Friday, only amplified after kickoff. Alexander talked trash. In press-man coverage, he bumped Jefferson to the ground off the line of scrimmage. He performed one of the toughest magic tricks in the NFL, making the game's best receiver invisible.
After his first target, a Kirk Cousins incompletion into tight coverage down the right sideline, Alexander did the Griddy as Jefferson sat on the field, stealing the dance Jefferson made popular after touchdown catches.
“I didn’t practice it,” Alexander said. “But I knew when I got in there, I was going to do it.”
Alexander didn’t make things easy on himself. On Thursday, knowing he would shadow Jefferson, Alexander suggested the Vikings receiver’s outburst in Week 1 was a mere “fluke.” Yes, the comment drew ire from his coaches. Even if Alexander acknowledged Jefferson is a top-three receiver, it was the closet thing to bulletin-board material opponents dare provide in today’s NFL.
He didn’t care who the term upset. Alexander is nothing if not unabashedly confident. No matter who it offends, he isn’t hiding his swagger from anyone.
Alexander later told his coaches he was just being honest.
"I know Jaire chirped a little,” coach Matt LaFleur said, “but he backed it up."
Packers secondary forces Kirk Cousins to throw three interceptions
With Alexander making Jefferson a nonfactor, the rest of the Packers secondary dominated. Cousins spent most of the first quarter unable to find an open receiver, finishing 3-for-12 with 25 yards and a 4.9 passer rating after 15 minutes. The Vikings quarterback was 23-for-32 with 277 yards and a 118.9 rating in their Week 1 matchup.
Among Cousins’ nine incompletions in the first quarter was a Darnell Savage interception, catching a deflection after Douglas knocked away a pass intended for tight end T.J. Hockenson. The Packers practiced the same play during the week, Douglas said, and the same thing happened then. Deflected pass. Savage pick.
This time, Savage returned it 75 yards for a touchdown.
In the second quarter, Cousins was intercepted on a pass intended for Jefferson. With rookie linebacker Quay Walker covering him, Jefferson slipped as he broke his route inside. As safety Adrian Amos started his return upfield after the pick, Alexander raced to find Jefferson. He gave the receiver a little nudge at the end of the play. As his frustration boiled over, Jefferson removed his helmet on the sideline and inadvertently whacked an official with it.
"He challenged him," LaFleur said. "There were a couple times he implemented some quick jams where he was very physical at the line of scrimmage. Any time DBs do that, you aren't always expecting it, especially if you haven't seen it a ton on tape, and that's always a challenge for − I don't care who you are as a wide receiver. That's always a challenge.
"I thought that was a great job by our staff, great job by Ja, and really all other 10 guys on the field just to be able to do their job off of whatever call was being made."
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For Alexander, Sunday was enough to exorcise the frustration of Week 1. Leaning against a table in the Packers locker room Sunday evening, wearing an oversized Packers ballcap teammate Elgton Jenkins gifted him, Alexander said he couldn’t even remember the opener. It happened too long ago to matter.
This fresh memory, the abuse he dished Jefferson, that’s all he cared about. Alexander backed up his comment. He showed what can happen when he's determined to take a receiver out of a game. There isn't an assignment he can't handle.
“It felt spectacular,” Alexander said. “Phenomenal. It feels …”
He paused a moment.