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Packers at the Bye: Cornerbacks

With 12 games down and a fight for the No. 1 seed and the playoffs on the horizon, here’s the key at cornerback for the Green Bay Packers.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers entered the season, just like they ended last season, with Jaire Alexander and Kevin King as the starting cornerbacks.

At the bye, they’ve played in a combined 10 games. Alexander has missed the last eight games with a shoulder injury while King has missed six games with an assortment of injuries. And yet, Green Bay is No. 8 in opponent passer rating. It is fifth in yards per attempt, sixth in 20-yard passes allowed, eighth in completion percentage, 10th in yards per completion and 12th in interception percentage.

How? It’s not as if the pass rush has been overwhelming (16th in sacks, 21st in pressure percentage).

Football is the ultimate team sport. Green Bay’s defensive success starts with general manager Brian Gutekunst, continues with the coaching of Jerry Gray and trickles down to a group of players that have played consistently well under challenging circumstances.

Gutekunst used his first-round pick on Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes. Stokes was considered a talented project by scouts, a superb combination of height and speed but not quite a finished product. He’s been terrific most weeks, though, including some games when he’s been matched against the opponent’s No. 1 receiver.

“I’m just really proud of his resiliency,” safety Darnell Savage said. “Even during camp, he spent a lot of time during camp he got to go against Davante (Adams). One thing about Eric, he never flinches. He’s always got that ‘it’ factor behind him. It’s good to have guys like that around.”

If Stokes was the splash move, grabbing Rasul Douglas off Arizona’s practice two months ago was the afterthought move. Douglas saved the game at Arizona with his end-zone interception and added a pivotal pick-six last week against the Rams to help him earn NFC Defensive Player of the Week. With two interceptions and eight passes defensed, he’s closing in on his career highs. As coach Matt LaFleur and quarterback Aaron Rodgers have said on several occasions, it’s hard to believe Douglas was on Arizona’s practice squad after failing to make two rosters coming out of camp.

Chandon Sullivan, who was retained as a restricted free agent, continues to provide underrated play in the slot. King, who was re-signed in free agency, has delivered some excellent performances (Kansas City and Seattle in back-to-back weeks) when healthy.

According to Pro Football Focus, 111 cornerbacks have played at least 160 coverage snaps. By its best guess at coverage responsibilities, Stokes ranks eighth with a completion rate allowed of 51.5 percent and is tied for 14th with a forced-incompletion rate of 15 percent. Douglas is ninth with a 52.3 percent completion rate and tied for 19th with a forced incompletion rate of 14 percent.

Of the 25 cornerbacks with at least 160 coverage snaps from the slot, Sullivan is second in snaps per reception and ninth in yards per coverage snap.

The group is led by Gray – “Coach OG,” as the players call him. A first-round pick by the Los Angeles Rams in 1985, Gray was a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback during his playing days. As a coach, he was a former defensive coordinator of the Bills and Titans before a six-year stint as the Vikings’ defensive backs coach under Mike Zimmer.

“He’s just got that connection with everybody,” Douglas said. “Like when you talk to him, you feel like you’ve known him for a while.”

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The NFL is a quarterback-driven the league. The league has tailored the game to be powered by passing attacks. Thus, it’s just as important to have defensive backs capable of matching up against those high-powered offenses. That makes Alexander (with David Bakhtiari) one of the two most important injuries to monitor as the NFL’s stretch run begins. For all the hype over what the addition of Odell Beckham might have meant, that transaction was nothing compared to potentially getting a cream-of-the-crop defensive stopper back in the lineup.

If Areturns, and LaFleur said he could return to practice this week, Gray will have plenty of options with Alexander, King, Sullivan, Stokes and Douglas.

“It’s a great problem to have because the defense has been playing really well, but I think really specifically the defensive backfield has done an outstanding job,” LaFleur said. “The OG has done a great job with all those guys. It is a challenge, but it’s a good problem to have.”

Packers at the Bye Series

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