The Green Bay Packers’ cornerbacks have had a long and rough season, but they held firm in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers did it more with scheme than personnel Sunday in the Packers’ 38-13 win over the New York Giants. But the performances of Damarious Randall, LaDarius Gunter and Micah Hyde were good enough, and that bodes well for the divisional round next week because the Packers will be facing a rookie starting quarterback who could be vulnerable to Capers’ maneuverings.
With the year-long issues the Packers have had at cornerback — Sam Shields' season-ending concussion and the injuries and wildly uneven play of Randall and Quinten Rollins — Capers at least has one big thing going for him in the secondary: his safeties, Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Their smarts and athleticism allow Capers to disguise coverages, as they regularly did against the Giants, that help protect the cornerbacks. We can expect to see more of that this week against Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott.
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If Prescott were a veteran surrounded by all the Cowboys’ talent — the league’s best halfback (Ezekiel Elliott) and best offensive line, a true No. 1 receiver (Dez Bryant) and a security blanket tight end (Jason Witten) — all the scheming in the world might not work. But against the rookie Prescott, a performance like the Packers’ secondary put in Sunday will give them a chance.
That’s not to say the Packers’ defensive back play against the Giants was an unmitigated success. The Packers gave up receptions in bunches early and two big plays: a 51-yard pass to tight end Will Tye in the second quarter, and a 41-yard touchdown to Tavarres King in the third quarter.
But Capers’ defensive backs made enough plays on the ball and kept Eli Manning and his receivers off balance enough to hold the Giants to 13 points. Granted, the Giants are weak on offense — they ranked No. 26 in the league in scoring and never reached the 30-point mark in a game this season. But considering how vulnerable the Packers’ secondary has looked at times this season, it wasn’t a given things would turn out like they did Sunday.
And one of the keys was the way Clinton-Dix and Burnett played cat-and-mouse at the line of scrimmage. One or the other would line up like he was going to blitz or play the run, then at the snap drop into coverage, sometimes shallow and sometimes peeling back to play deep. They did it from the game’s start.
For instance, on a second down on the Giants’ first possession, Burnett lined up over left guard Justin Pugh like he was going to blitz, while Clinton-Dix covered Odell Beckham Jr. in the slot with a big seven-yard cushion. That looked like a nice mismatch for the Giants, the game’s most dynamic receiver against a safety.
But on the snap, Burnett dropped and doubled Beckham. Beckham dropped Manning’s pass on a short in-and-out route. But looking ahead a week, this is the kind of coverage Prescott might not recognize. He might make a bad read and impulsive quick throw that Burnett could get his hands on.
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In the red zone later in the quarter, on a third down from the Packers’ 8, Capers had six men on the line of scrimmage. But three of them backed off at the snap, including Clinton-Dix. Manning tried a quick throw outside that Randall nearly intercepted. Judging by Manning’s reaction, one of his receivers to that side — it was tough to tell whether he was motioning to Sterling Shepard or Victor Cruz, because they nearly collided — didn’t adjust his route properly. That blew up the play and ended the drive with a field goal.
And on a third down in the final minute of the first quarter, Burnett mugged the line of scrimmage, then dropped into coverage at the snap. The Giants ran a draw, but it illustrates what Capers was trying to do. His goal was to confuse either the quarterback or the receivers as they read and adjust routes on the fly.
Randall also showed that he will be a key player for the Packers as long as they’re in the playoffs. He’s had more than his share of struggles in his second season, but he had a pretty good game Sunday.
If you watched the game, you might dispute that in part because of the 41-yard touchdown that he appeared to give up. But that almost surely wasn’t his fault. He lined up on King's outside shoulder, which meant he expected help in the deep middle from a safety. If he didn't expect help, he’d have lined up on King's inside shoulder to take away the middle of the field.
The help wasn’t there because Clinton-Dix came up to cover Shepard on a crossing route. It’s hard to know for sure, but it looked like linebacker Jake Ryan was supposed to pick up Shepard, and if so, the error was his. Clinton-Dix then could have stayed back to help Randall on the deep post.
On the day, Randall made four plays on the ball — three knockdowns and a late interception in the end zone. The second-year pro’s inexperience still shows — on the game’s third snap he failed to recognize a pick play and was knocked off coverage on Cruz’s crossing route for a 17-yard gain. But he’s the Packers’ most physically talented cover man and will have to play more like he did against the Giants if his team is going to move on this weekend.
There’s a good chance this will be 36-year-old Julius Peppers’ final NFL season, but he showed Sunday he still can make a big play in a big game.
Peppers' late second-quarter sack might have turned the game. Peppers, with help from good coverage and pocket push by defensive tackle Dean Lowry, sacked Manning on a third down at his own 8.
That forced a punt and meant the struggling Packers would get excellent field position while trailing 6-0. Brad Wing helped their cause with a bad punt that set up the Packers at the Giants’ 38. Three plays later Aaron Rodgers had them in the end zone, and his Hail Mary to Randall Cobb on the final play of the half gave the Packers a 14-6 lead even though they’d been outplayed up to that point.
The Packers will need a play or two like that from Peppers to keep advancing in the playoffs.