GREEN BAY, Wis. – That Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry went with Jaire Alexander, Kevin King and Eric Stokes as his three cornerbacks on Monday night wasn’t a surprise.
What was a surprise is how Barry deployed that trio.
Rather than using Alexander exclusively as his slot cornerback in place of Chandon Sullivan, he split the playing time between Alexander and King.
King’s not exactly a prototypical slot cornerback because it’s not a great matchup against prototypical slot receivers. When you think of a slot receiver, you tend to think of someone like veteran Randall Cobb or rookie Amari Rodgers. What they lack in height and even speed, they make up for in short-area quickness and the ability to use the full field to their advantage.
At 6-foot-3, King’s got outstanding height. What he would seem to lack is the quickness to match up with cat-quick slot receivers, his sensational 3.89-second timing in the 20-yard shuttle at the 2017 Scouting Combine notwithstanding.
“He’s got height, he’s got length,” Barry said on Thursday. “We’re going to try to roll multiple people based on situation, based on defensive personnel groups, at that nickel position. We feel like we’ve got three really good corners in Eric, Jaire and Kevin. Ja can play inside, Kevin can play inside, (safety Darnell) Savage has messed around in there a little bit, too, obviously Sully. I think that’s a weapon for us just because offenses look at that so much. A lot of things they do, especially in the passing game and the protection game, identification of who is that nickel? So, if you can keep them guessing a little bit, it’s always going to be beneficial.”
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The plan worked on Monday. According to Pro Football Focus, King played 22 snaps in the slot, with 16 of those plays coming in coverage. Alexander played 17 snaps in the slot, with 15 of those coming in coverage.
Of course, the Lions don’t have a great slot receiver. Most of the playing time has gone to fifth-round rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown, who is neither tall (5-11 1/2), fast (4.61 in the 40), quick (4.20 in the 20-yard shuttle) nor experienced. So, the Packers could get away with the unorthodox decision to try King in the slot.
“Matchup-wise, they’re looking like, ‘OK, where are they going to be? Is it going to be Kevin outside? Is it going to be Ja inside?’” defensive backs coach Jerry Gray said. “We’re trying to do some things to kind of screw the offense, too, because they’re trying to do the same thing to us.”
Barry could go a different direction with his personnel against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night. The 49ers’ main slot options this season have been veteran Mohamed Sanu (19 slot snaps) and rampaging third-year player Deebo Samuel (18 slot snaps). The 32-year-old Sanu, who was never fast to begin with, hasn’t gotten any faster in Year 10. But he’s got size (6-foot-2) and savvy. Samuel leads the NFL in receiving yards and has 15 of the 22 receptions delivered by 49ers receivers.
It’s possible Alexander will follow Samuel all over the field, including the slot, and King could get Sanu when he goes inside. The wild card is Brandon Aiyuk. The Niners’ first-round pick in 2020 had 60 catches as a rookie but just one this season. He’s played four slot snaps.
Of course, there’s more to playing in the slot than covering the slot receiver. Because the slot defender is so close to the action, playing run defense is a big part of the job. King’s size, perhaps, will give Green Bay an edge against the Niners’ superb running game.
“Sometimes you look and you say ‘OK, what can we do to get our guys and kind of mix them up?’ Gray said. “I know Kevin is strong at the point of attack. He’s a really great tackler. So, people try to get the nickel in the run game now. That’s why they do a bunch of fly motions, get the linebacker out, put a little-bitty guy in. So, we’re saying if that’s the case, then why not put our bigger guy inside so he can make tackles? And Kevin’s not afraid to make tackles, so to me that was like a natural thing to do.”