Packers' cornerback depth wins out
The Green Bay Packers and New York Giants had the same big problem heading into their matchup Sunday night at Lambeau Field.
Both had injuries to two of their top three cornerbacks. For the Packers, Sam Shields (concussion) and Damarious Randall (groin) didn’t even suit up. The Giants’ Eli Apple (hamstring) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (groin) played, but both aggravated their injuries early in the game. Apple never returned, and Rodgers-Cromartie was in and out of the lineup the rest of the night.
The difference was, the Packers had the depth in the secondary to make up for the loss, whereas the Giants didn’t. And that helped make the difference in the Packers’ 23-16 win.
Specifically, LaDarius Gunter, the Packers' second-year pro, moved into the starting lineup and had a good game against a talented receiving corps that includes one of the NFL’s most talented playmakers in Odell Beckham, Jr., along with veteran Victor Cruz and second-round draft pick Sterling Shepard.
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When the Packers’ secondary is healthy, Gunter is the No. 4 cornerback and doesn’t even play in the dime package unless someone needs a rest. But he played all 56 defensive snaps at starting right cornerback Sunday night and more than held up.
The Giants, on the other hand, ended up playing undrafted rookie Michael Hunter on seven snaps as part of the rotation to replace Apple (seven of 80 snaps) and Rodgers-Cromartie (61 of 80 snaps). And the Packers exploited Hunter in a big way.
Gunter surprisingly didn’t even make the stat sheet despite playing the entire game. But that can be a good sign for a cornerback, because it meant he wasn’t having to tackle receivers who were catching the ball on him.
Gunter also probably should have been credited with one pass breakup, late in the second quarter. On that play, Gunter had tight coverage as Cruz ran a dig route. Quarterback Eli Manning threw slightly behind Cruz, and at first blush it was hard to tell whether Cruz dropped the ball or Gunter caused the incompletion. But on a field-level replay, it appeared Gunter hit Cruz’s arm as the ball arrived.
Either way, it was the kind of play that Gunter made enough of in training camp last year to win a spot on the roster as an undrafted rookie. Gunter doesn’t run well for his position (4.69-second 40), but he has good length (6-1) and strength, and a knack for usually being close enough to his man to try to make a play on the ball.
That’s exactly what happened there. Gunter used his hands for a decent jam on Cruz, stayed snug in coverage, and then had long enough arms to disrupt the catch when the ball arrived.
Gunter matched up with Beckham regularly on the night, and the explosive receiver beat him for a 16-yard gain early in the second quarter that was called back because of a holding penalty. Beckham also had Gunter beat on a corner route that Manning overthrew a few plays later. But that was it.
And Gunter wasn’t alone. Second-year pro Quinten Rollins (two pass breakups) held up well starting opposite Gunter, as did Micah Hyde (one pass breakup, one sack), who was promoted to the nickel position because of the injuries.
Coming into the game, that had to be the Packers’ greatest concern, getting burned again defending the pass. In their previous game, also without Shields just before the bye, the Packers gave up 385 yards passing to Detroit’s Matthew Stafford.
But on Sunday night, Manning threw for only 199 yards and a 78.2 rating. Beckham caught only five of 12 targets for an 11.2-yard average. His touchdown was of the spectacular variety — a leaping eight-yard catch at the end line late in the fourth quarter that included an incredible toe tap to stay in-bounds. But he didn’t make any back-breaking big plays or come close to dominating the game .
On the other side, the Giants’ didn’t have the cornerback depth to win against a Packers receiving corps that isn’t as dynamic as the Giants’. Aaron Rodgers threw for 259 yards and took advantage of the undrafted rookie Hunter on back-to-back completions to Davante Adams for the Packers’ final touchdown.
The touchdown came in the second quarter, after Adams caught a stop route on Hunter for a nine-yard gain. On the next play, Adams lined up far right with Hunter in one-on-one coverage at the line of scrimmage and no safety help deep. Rodgers went at the rookie and hit Adams on a fade route for a 29-yard touchdown that put the Packers up 14-3.
And there was the difference in the game.
The half Nelson
Jordy Nelson made a couple of vintage catches Sunday night, but he offset them with a couple of costly drops.
Until Sunday night, he hadn’t in his return from knee surgery come up with one of his specialty catches — that is, going to the ground to dig out low throws. He did it twice Sunday.
The first was his two-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter, when he made a diving grab on a ball that wasn’t much more than a foot off the ground.
The second was on the kind of chains-moving play he and Rodgers used to connect on regularly before the injury. Early in the fourth quarter, Rodgers ran a bootleg to the right and threw an out pattern to Nelson on the sideline. The throw was purposely low and wide so that only Nelson would have a shot at it.
Despite tight coverage by cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who even got a hand between Nelson’s arms, Nelson went to his knees and scooped up the pass just before it hit the ground. First down.
However, Nelson’s two drops suggest he’s still making his way back. He had a pass skip off his hands in the red zone on the Packers’ second possession that Jenkins intercepted on the carom. That took three or seven points off the board at a time when the Packers had a chance to take a big lead early. And late in the third quarter, he dropped a well-thrown ball on a deep crossing route.
» General manager Ted Thompson paid David Bakhtiari big just before the start of the regular season, and it’s looking like the right call. Bakhtiari has played great since signing a four-year contract extension that added $48 million to his current deal. The Packers’ entire offensive line was excellent Sunday night, and Bakhtiari was right there at the top of that list. Giants defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon flip-flopped sides throughout the night, but neither got much of a sniff of Rodgers against Bakhtiari. On several plays, Bakhtiari stymied one or the other for more than five seconds.
» At the end of camp, it looked to us like third-round pick Kyler Fackrell was borderline for making the final 53. But in just spot duty so far he’s shown up as a pass rusher with two sacks, including the best play of his young career Sunday night when he strip-sacked Manning late in the second quarter.
Fackrell still has a ways to go as a run defender, but as a pass rusher he has great length (6-5) and keeps his feet moving on contact with a blocker. That’s how he made the sack Sunday night. When he first collided with tackle Bobby Hart, Fackrell kept his feet chopping, which gave him the power to knock down Hart’s hands and go around him for the sack and fumble that led to a Packers field goal.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1