This was his moment of truth, of sorts. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix shadowed Rob Gronkowski down the sideline. Stride for stride, both players approached the end zone.
Gronk near the goal line? There is no more daunting matchup in the NFL. Ask the Chicago Bears, who gave up three touchdown catches to Gronkowski one month ago. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end is as close as it gets to an impossible cover.
On Sunday, the Green Bay Packers rotated several players. With the game hanging in the balance late in the fourth quarter, it was the rookie's turn to cover the New England Patriots' All-Pro tight end.
"I felt like if I got my hands on him early that I could disrupt the timing," Clinton-Dix said. "Disrupt his route, and cause it to be hectic."
Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers said his rookie safety had perfect coverage. New England quarterback Tom Brady's pass was almost better. Gronkowski laid out for the football, cradled it as he fell to the grass, but Clinton-Dix still shadowed him.
On the ground, the first-round safety prevented a go-ahead touchdown when he knocked the football from Gronkowski's grasp.
"You saw one of the biggest plays of the game was when Ha Ha got the ball out there in the end zone," Capers said Monday. "That was just a great finish on his part. If he didn't give extra effort finishing that play, it probably would've been a touchdown. When you're in a game like this, those are the kind of plays that make a different."
Clinton-Dix knew the challenge that awaited against the Patriots.
All his life, he'd watched Brady dissect NFL defenses. As Sunday's game progressed, Clinton-Dix said he settled in and felt more comfortable. The pressure Green Bay's defensive front put on Brady helped. Feeling the rush, Brady was uncharacteristically off target on a few passes.
Of course, his late throw to Gronkowski was not one of them.
"Tom just threw it up," Gronkowski said after the game. "It was a fade route. I tried to go up and make a play. I went under it. I am pretty sure I caught it, but at the last second (Clinton-Dix) made a nice play and hit it out of my hands. It was a good play by him."
In that critical moment, Clinton-Dix had to do everything right. One slight error, one momentary lapse, and the rookie would've allowed a potentially devastating touchdown.
How necessary are these kind of matchups for his development?
"Very important," Clinton-Dix said. "It gives me a lot of confidence. I just want to keep making plays, and continue to make this defense better. … It's amazing just to come out with a win against a guy like Tom Brady. He's one of the greatest in the business right now. Just to have all the weapons he has one offense, to come out with a win is a great thing."
It was impressive for Clinton-Dix to win that matchup in the end zone. More telling, his teammates weren't surprised.
Veteran cornerback Tramon Williams called Clinton-Dix "a smart kid." His experience playing college football at Alabama has helped this transition to the NFL. The rookie doesn't shy from the bright lights, big games on a national stage.
While some first-year players run slow down this time of year, Clinton-Dix has gotten stronger. Each week, he's a bigger part of Green Bay's defense, developing from a rotational player earlier this season to a full-time starter.
Last week, Clinton-Dix told Press-Gazette Media he no longer considered himself a rookie. Since the bye, he said, it's been unacceptable to use that distinction as an excuse. Plays like the one he made Sunday show why he's ready to shed the label.
"He's settled in," Williams said. "Obviously, in the beginning of the season, he was a guy who was rotating and getting limited time. Now he's fully in there, getting a lot of quality reps, making plays for us, and learning the defense in the process of being in there. It's been on the run for him, but he's been picking it up real fast."
-firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood