GREEN BAY – Mike Pettine saw the potential in the spring.
In the midst of installing his scheme, the Packers’ new defensive coordinator quickly took notice of rookie draft picks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson early in the offseason program.
Both cornerbacks displayed the natural playmaking instincts and ball-hawking abilities that led to them becoming the Packers’ first two selections in the NFL Draft. Confident in their own separate and distinct way, Alexander and Jackson backed up their bravado in training camp and the preseason.
In Pettine’s mind, the only thing left for the two rookie cornerbacks to do was prove big-game lights weren’t too bright for them. So where do things stand with Alexander and Jackson two weeks into the regular season?
“I think we’ve certainly gotten that answer,” Pettine said Thursday. “If you didn’t know who was who and just evaluated our defense the first two weeks, you’d be hard-pressed to say that Jaire’s not potentially our top defensive player, if not one or two. Just his effort, his energy, playmaking ability, he’s been outstanding and Josh isn’t that far behind.”
Filling in for an injured Kevin King on the boundary late in Sunday’s game against Minnesota, Alexander made arguably the biggest play of the day when he looked in an over-the-shoulder interception off an overthrown pass from Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins with 1 minute, 37 seconds remaining.
The turnover appeared to seal the win for the Packers, with Alexander even christening the moment with his first Lambeau Leap. However, a controversial roughing-the-passer penalty on Clay Matthews nullified the play and gave the Vikings new life.
Ever-confident, Alexander kept a smile on his face in the postgame locker room and continued to show that swagger when speaking to the media earlier this week.
“I’m still going to count that one,” said Alexander with a smile Wednesday. “It was great. I’m glad I got my hands on it, I just turned into receiver mode at that point when the ball’s in the air, and made the play.”
The Packers and defensive pass-game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. had a good idea of Alexander’s ball-hawking ability when they drafted him 18th overall out of Louisville in the spring.
What they didn’t anticipate is how physically he plays the game for a 5-foot-10, 196-pound cornerback. In addition to recording his first sack against the Vikings, Alexander also racked up seven solo tackles.
He’s still had his learning moments. When asked about Cousins’ touchdown pass to Adam Thielen late in Sunday’s eventual 29-29 tie, Alexander playfully said he doesn’t remember, citing the short-memory required of his position.
“I play with a chip on my shoulder always, just because a lot of people like to say I’m short,” Alexander said. “I’m not short, I’m actually average size, or whatever. Go in with my hair on fire, go in looking to show you what kind of plays a short guy can make, you know.”
Jackson is quieter than his charismatic counterpart, but just as confident in his skills. Like Alexander, Jackson came to Green Bay with something to prove after scouts questioned his speed and upside after starting only one season at Iowa.
It didn’t take long for Jackson revert to the playmaking ability that saw him haul in eight interceptions last year for the Hawkeyes, nabbing a pick-six against Pittsburgh in the preseason.
He’s also demonstrated the ability to play on the boundary or in the slot, where he started the Packers’ regular-season opener against Chicago. A magnet for the end zone, Jackson scored his first NFL touchdown last Sunday on a block punt.
“I’m getting there. After every play, I’m starting to feel a lot more confident,” Jackson said. “Trying to get to vet status one day, get as much playing time as I can and learn from it, feel good about playing time I got so far, just build on that.”
The Packers may need more big plays from Alexander and Jackson this Sunday in Washington after Head Coach Mike McCarthy said King will be “hard-pressed” to play due to the groin injury he suffered against Minnesota. Veteran Davon House also has been limited at practice this week with a biceps injury.
Both Whitt and Pettine say the rookies still have a long way to go in their development, but the Packers invested their first two draft picks in Alexander and Jackson for this very reason after watching injuries take their toll on the position in recent years.
“What I do like about both of them, they fight,” Whitt Jr. said. “Jaire has shown a physicality I did not know he had. He’s a tough kid. He sets edges. He plays the screen game really well.
“(Jackson) has the ability to cover tight ends, to take those assignments. He can cover slots and he can push outside, if needed. They’re trending in the right direction, but it’s so early.”
The two cornerbacks have earned a fan across the ball in Pro Bowl receiver Davante Adams, who has been impressed with the rookies’ poise and willingness to ask questions this summer.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys and how they came in and got straight to work,” Adams said. “I saw Josh in college and kind of had an idea of how good he is with his ball skills. I feel like he’s one of the best on the team on the other side of the ball with catching the ball.
“Jaire’s been great. He’s been asking me a lot of questions – if I beat him, what did you see? Why did you go inside on this or that? Just the attention to the detail right there is promising.”