GREEN BAY – A simple pattern developed during Sunday’s game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Rams quarterback Jared Goff kept throwing at Jaire Alexander and the Packers’ rookie cornerback kept batting the ball down.
In total, Alexander’s five breakups were the most by a Green Bay defender since 2005, but those deflections weren’t what caught the attention of veteran cornerback Tramon Williams.
It was the first play Alexander made Sunday on Los Angeles’ opening offensive possession, when the 5-foot-10, 196-pound cornerback fearlessly threw his weight into 6-foot-6, 255-pound tight end Tyler Higbee to cleanly escort him out of bounds.
“That was a tone-setter,” Williams said. “He’s bigger than what people think he is. That’s the first problem. They look at his height and they think, ‘Oh, he’s not that big,’ but he’s got a little weight behind him. That aggressiveness is part of his character already.”
Talkative as can be, Alexander is confident beyond his 21 years. On the eve of a return from a groin injury that sidelined him for two games, Alexander was salivating all last week at the proposition of matching Brandin Cooks.
Alexander played an aggressive and physical brand of football against the former first-round pick. He jammed at the line of scrimmage, stayed stride-for-stride with Cooks downfield and even tore a couple would-be catches from his grasp.
His biggest breakup of the day was perhaps his first. With Goff looking to test the Packers’ secondary deep, Alexander perfectly timed his read on a throw to Cooks in the back of the end zone.
The 18th overall pick and first-ever selection for new Packers GM Brian Gutekunst in this year’s NFL Draft after multiple trades jockeying for position, Alexander came to Green Bay with a reputation of unbridled confidence and he’s lived up to it through his first season with the Packers.
“How could you not be excited about Jaire?" Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "You could see it since the day he arrived. He walked into the building with so much confidence. He has a positive light that shines on him. It's infectious."
Williams has played with some of the very best cornerbacks of his generation in Charles Woodson, Patrick Peterson, Al Harris, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Joe Haden. Yet, the former Pro Bowler admits he hasn’t been around a rookie cornerback quite like Alexander, calling him “one-of-a-kind.”
If Williams hadn’t known Alexander was the Packers’ rookie first-round pick, the veteran says he wouldn’t have been able to tell based on how Alexander carries himself on the field.
It isn’t rare for rookies to pick up things quickly in the classroom in Williams’ experience, but what separates Alexander is how he’s integrated those lessons directly into his play rather than just relying on his talent and ability. As an added bonus, the energy Alexander possesses rubs off on the entire defense.
“Ja’ is one of the young guys who has an intangible about his self that you can’t really coach,” Williams said. “He has an impact on the team just with his energy. It was great to see him healthy, so he can come out and show what he can do. He’s been doing it when he’s been on the field.”
Alexander cited film study and a “mentality I was going to dominate my receiver” to his breakthrough performance against the Rams. His return marked the first time since Week 2 against Minnesota that Green Bay had its top four cornerbacks (Williams, Alexander, Kevin King and Josh Jackson) available.
It’s a unit the Packers invested a significant amount of resources in this offseason to help improve a pass defense that finished 23rd in yards allowed and 31st in opposing passer rating in 2017.
Despite Alexander and King combining to miss four games, Green Bay still ranks fifth in pass defense (221.7 yards per game). The secondary will look to build on that this Sunday against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium.
Speaking to the Green Bay media on a conference call Tuesday, Patriots coach Bill Belichick was extremely complimentary of both Alexander’s playstyle and Gutekunst’s decision to draft him 18th overall.
When asked what jumps out about Alexander, Belichick said simply, “Everything,” before praising the rookie’s skills in man-to-man coverage and how he can match fast receivers.
“He’s a great player. He’s going to have a great career in this league,” Belichick said. “I thought that was an excellent pick. That was a little bit ahead of where we were picking (at No. 23).
“The guy is a really good football player and I think he has a great future in this league. I think he’ll be one of the top corners in the game for quite a while here.”
A day earlier, Williams painted a similar portrait when asked about Alexander’s upside and his presence in the locker room.
“We love him being him,” Williams said. “He’s going to be a great player for a long time here and he’s going to be a leader.”