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Packers ‘Hopeful’ Alexander Can Return in ‘Matter of Weeks’

The Green Bay Packers are hoping All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander's injured shoulder will heal without season-ending surgery.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers are hoping rest, not surgery, will cure All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander’s injured shoulder, a potentially huge piece of good news for the team’s championship aspirations.

“I think we’ve got better clarity with that,” coach Matt LaFleur said after Friday’s practice. “It’s one of those things we’re going to let heal and see where it’s at down the line before making that determination [on surgery]. But we’re hopeful that it’ll heal the right way and he’ll be back with us in a matter of weeks.”

To be sure, after several days of consideration and consultation with specialists, the Packers and Alexander are in wait-and-see mode. The progress he makes over the next couple weeks will be critical. The team also was hopeful rest would take care of Za’Darius Smith’s injured back. Instead, Smith had surgery and might not return this season.

Alexander, who was injured on his big hit against 230-pound Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris on a fourth down last week, will be out for Sunday’s game at the Cincinnati Bengals.

“It’s obviously big shoes to fill,” receiver Davante Adams said this week. “Jaire’s all over the place. He makes a lot of plays. It’s not often a play is made on him.”

Alexander was a driving force in last year’s march to the NFC Championship Game, putting on a coverage clinic down the stretch to cement his status as one of the NFL’s top defensive players. According to Sports Info Solutions and its best guess at coverage responsibilities, opposing quarterbacks were a woeful 8-of-24 passing for 96 yards during the final five regular-season games. In two playoff games, the dominance continued with 2-of-7 for 16 yards and two interceptions.

That he could be available for a potential playoff run can’t be overstated. The NFL is a passing-centric league. For the most part, the playoff teams will have good to great quarterbacks. As such, Green Bay’s championship aspirations perhaps are alive and well if Alexander can avoid season-ending surgery.

Could the Packers, even with Aaron Rodgers guiding their offense, compete with the likes of Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady, the Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford, Arizona’s Kyler Murray, Dallas’ Dak Prescott or Seattle’s Russell Wilson in a one-and-done elimination game without Alexander? Could they even survive the five-game gauntlet of quarterbacks that starts in Week 8 at Murray’s Cardinals and continues with Week 9 at Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, Week 10 against Wilson’s Seahawks, Week 11 at Kirk Cousins and the Vikings and Week 12 against Stafford’s Rams?

Complicating matters is the indefinite absence of Smith, the Packers’ top pass rusher. The Packers are just 24th in pressure rate through four games. The best defenses have pass rush and coverage. The Packers might not have either at a consistently winning level.

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Until Alexander returns, Green Bay will have to lean on Kevin King, Eric Stokes and Chandon Sullivan to keep opposing quarterbacks in check. And they’ll have to count on Rodgers and Co. to pile on the points.

King had one strong season, 2019, when he ranked among the NFL leaders with five interceptions and 15 passes defensed. However, while playing only 13 of a possible 20 regular-season games the past two seasons, he has zero interceptions and six passes defensed. In the small sample size of two games this year, he’s allowed 5-of-6 passing for 133 yards and one touchdown, a perfect passer rating of 158.3, according to Pro Football Focus. Of 102 cornerbacks with at least 63 coverage snaps, he’s given up a league-worst 26.6 yards per catch and is 92nd with an 83.3 percent completion rate.

Stokes, the first-round pick, has taken his lumps as a rookie. Quarterbacks have tested him early and often, his 4.9 snaps per target ranking eighth-highest of the aforementioned 102 corners. According to PFF, he gave up 10 catches on 15 targets last week but for only 82 yards, and he clinched the game with an interception.

Statistically, Sullivan was one of the better slot defenders last season but he has not matched that standard. Of the 47 corners with at least 26 coverage snaps from the slot, Sullivan is 37th in yards per snap (1.68) and 34th in snaps per reception (7.4), according to PFF. Last year, he allowed 1.13 yards per snap and 10.8 snaps per reception. He also has missed, by our unofficial count, a team-worst five tackles.

Maybe King can stay healthy and reach his potential. Maybe Stokes will become a star. Maybe Sullivan will return to form. Maybe the new guy, Rasul Douglas, can contribute. Or perhaps fifth-round rookie Shemar Jean-Charles will emerge.

But none of those guys is Alexander. The Packers’ Super Bowl hopes could hinge on whether he can return to action this season.

“It’s going to be tough to fill exactly what he does out there, but those guys have been working and they take it serious, as well,” Adams said. “Kevin has been around here for a while, too. He’s made a lot of plays for us. He’s had his ups and downs, but I think where his mind is right now, just as long as he’s feeling good physically, I think he can go out there and hold his own at any point in time. Same with Sully. Those guys can definitely make some plays, so I’m sure that they’re looking forward to getting out there and doing that.”

Green Bay’s new reality begins on Sunday against the Bengals. Quarterback Joe Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick of last year’s draft, has three excellent receivers with Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and veteran Tyler Boyd.

“When you look at their wideouts, they’re loaded,” defensive backs coach Jerry Gray said. “They got a great quarterback, really, really good running back. A thing that we’re trying to do is make sure that there’s no balls thrown over our head. I know they got skill, but those are things we’ve got to make sure we keep doing.”

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