GREEN BAY — Let’s be clear: Even if the Green Bay Packers had a clear-cut, lockdown No. 1 cornerback, it’s not as if that person — whoever it might’ve been — would have held Antonio Brown in check.
Even a rookie like Kevin King knows that.
“You’re not going to shut him out. You’re not going to have him to zero catches or zero yards,” King said of the Pittsburgh Steelers star receiver, who caught 10 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday night, running his NFL-leading totals to 80 receptions for 1,195 yards this season. “You know that, especially when he gets 15 targets a game. You’re going to get work and he’s going to get catches. As a corner, you can’t get away from that. You can’t get away from him making plays or even making big plays. That’s going to happen.”
And while King is right about that, perhaps the Packers could have limited the damage if they had a true No. 1 at the position. But they don’t.
Entering the season, veteran Davon House — returning as a free agent after two years with the Jacksonville Jaguars — was supposed to be that guy. But a combination of injuries early in the year and ineffective play of late have made it clear he’s a complementary corner at this point. He gave up a touchdown in his third straight game when Brown beat him for a 33-yarder on Sunday night.
King, the team’s top draft pick, certainly has the potential to be that No. 1 corner, with a unique combination of size, speed and length. But a shoulder injury that has hampered him since college at Washington has had him in and out of the lineup and kept him from having full use of his arm in some games. He left Sunday night’s game for a long stretch before returning for the second half, when he gave up the second of Brown’s two touchdowns on a 1-yard fade route.
At this point, the Packers’ best cover man has been Damarious Randall, a player who six weeks ago was banished from the bench during a Sept. 28 win over Chicago and had some of his teammates believing he should be released for his behavior. A first-round pick in 2015 who didn’t play to that level last season, Randall notched his fourth interception of the season against the Steelers and has played outside in the base defense and inside at the “star” position in the slot in sub packages.
“We’ve had a lot of guys in and out,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers acknowledged.
That’s why it’s safe to assume cornerback will again be a major priority this offseason, just as it was in 2015 (when Randall and Quinten Rollins were the team’s top two picks) and last spring.
With Rollins, a second-round pick in 2015, out for the year with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon and with the team having decided to part ways with LaDarius Gunter, who was inconsistent last season when thrust into the role of No. 1 cornerback, the next-man-up options at cornerback are second-year man Josh Hawkins and rookies Lenzy Pipkins and Donatello Brown, both of whom were promoted from the practice squad. Veteran Demetri Goodson has started practicing but remains on the physically unable to perform list and has been mostly a special teams player during his career.
While Gunter was up-and-down last season — he was matched up with opponents’ top receivers in multiple games, ahead of Randall and Rollins — a number of people inside the organization were unhappy when the team cut him to clear a roster spot earlier this season. He is now on the Carolina Panthers’ roster and was inactive for the Panthers’ win over the New York Jets on Sunday.
The Packers haven’t had a true No. 1 corner since Sam Shields suffered a concussion in the 2016 regular-season opener and never played another down for the team before being released during the offseason. But even Shields didn’t play at the level of Tramon Williams, the team’s shutdown corner on the Packers’ Super Bowl XLV-winning team in 2010. And the Packers haven’t had consistent, high-level cornerback play since that season, when Williams, Shields and Charles Woodson, a likely Pro Football Hall of Famer, were their top three cover men.
While Capers said he wouldn’t have relied on one player to cover Brown alone all game long, not having anyone who was up to the task even for a chunk of the game created a challenge.
“I’m not sure how many corners are going to match up one-on-one consistently against him,” Capers said. “So a big part of the game and the chess match is, how many guys are you going to commit to him? And then when you do commit two guys to him, you know the guy on the other side is one-on-one. You kind of saw that on (Martavis Bryant’s touchdown against Hawkins), where we were doubling ‘84’ and they hit us with a double move on the other side.”
The Packers’ best hope for the final five games, starting with Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lambeau Field, would be for King’s shoulder to stay healthy enough for him to play every down, whether in the base defense or in sub packages. King sat out the Nov. 19 loss to Baltimore in hopes of his shoulder improving, then departed the game in Pittsburgh when it became an issue again. There have been times when King had to miss a series or two because his shoulder locked up and he couldn’t use that arm. Once he was able to function again — as was the case last Sunday night — he would return to the game.
“I can’t give him enough credit for fighting through what he has,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of King. “There’s weeks where — he has to prove it each week in practice, and when he does that he’s afforded the opportunity to play. I think it’s a real credit for him to battle back each and every time.
“But going in and out of the game is a challenge for a defense, there’s no doubt about it. But … that’s just kind of the landscape of our league, you know? These injuries are a challenge for every team, and that’s something that we’ve had to deal with a lot this year.””