When Jaire Alexander Returns, How Do the Packers Line Up at Corner?

The Green Bay Packers got some good news on Friday when the team activated cornerback Jaire Alexander from the Covid-19 reserve list. The Pro Bowl cornerback hasn’t played in a game since injuring his shoulder making a tackle on Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris back in Week 4.

But the Packers secondary has played well in Alexander’s absence with both rookie first-round pick Eric Stokes and veteran free agent signee Rasul Douglas stepping up and playing better than expected.

With Alexander on the brink of returning to the lineup in time for the playoffs, the Packers coaching staff faces a good dilemma: how do they line up their cornerbacks?

The ideal situation allows defensive coordinator Joe Barry to put his top three cornerbacks on the field at the same time. That would be Alexander, Stokes and Douglas. But who lines up on the boundary and who lines up in the slot?

Under normal circumstances, Alexander might be the best candidate to play in the slot. He is 5’10” and coaches tend to prefer smaller corners with more quickness and who can change direction to play in the slot. Alexander does fit the mold.

But there is an issue: slot corners are more like a hybrid safety/ILB on running plays and have to make more tackles than their teammates who line up on the boundary. This is especially true on early downs or any time the offense is more likely to run. With Alexander coming off a shoulder injury that he suffered when trying to make an open field tackle, the risk of him re-injuring the shoulder is significantly higher if he plays the slot.

Stokes has no significant experience at the NFL level in the slot. Being in the slot requires a corner to make more decisions and cover more ground since the sideline doesn’t provide the defender with a boundary the receiver can’t cross like you often have on the outside.

Most rookie cornerbacks struggle but Stokes has been a very pleasant surprise.  According to pro-football-reference.com, opposing quarterbacks have completed just 48.9 percent of their passes when throwing to receivers covered by Stokes and have a quarterback rating of only 71.0.

But the extra responsibilities that slot corners have is a lot to ask of a rookie without experience playing that position, especially as we head into the playoffs where one bad mistake could cost the team the game. Keeping Stokes on the boundary where he’s had so much success thus far this season seems to make the most sense.

That leaves Rasul Douglas out of the top three corners. Douglas is bigger at 6’2” and doesn’t fit the physical mold of a typical slot corner. He also lacks the speed that Alexander and Stokes possess. Douglas does have the experience and the ability to read quarterbacks well but he may struggle inside where receivers can change direction and he would have to cover more ground.

Thus far, Douglas has exceled on the boundary. Opposing quarterbacks are completing just 50.8 percent of their passes when targeting receivers covered by Douglas this season and have an anemic quarterback rating of 44.8 (again as per pro-football-reference.com).

Thus far, Chandon Sullivan has gotten the majority of the snaps in the slot. Sullivan is comfortable in the slot and has been solid in that position. He is clearly not one of the team’s top three cover corners but he has intercepted three passes and played well enough overall. The issue with keeping Sullivan in the slot corner position is that one of the team’s top three will be on the bench for those plays.

That may make some sense at first, especially if Alexander needs to be paced as he returns to the lineup for the first time since October 3. A rotation could also be worked out where Alexander plays in the slot on obvious passing downs and Sullivan goes to the dime back.

Another possibility is that Alexander, Douglas and Stokes all alternate on the boundary and Sullivan remains the primary slot corner.

Getting a shut down cover corner back in the lineup is a good thing for the Packers but it sets up important decisions that the coaching staff has to make in time for the playoffs when it’s win or go home. What decision they make can change the outcome of a playoff game. In other words, the season may hang in the balance.

You can follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers

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7 points

Comments (34)

Fan-Friendly This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.
splitpea1's picture

January 08, 2022 at 12:26 pm

Good article, and good question. Maybe we continue to do just what we've doing with Stokes, Douglas, and Sullivan, because all three have done a good job on most occasions, especially Douglas with his nose for the ball. We have won a lot of games with this lineup. I like the idea of working Alexander in gradually and using him in the slot on the obvious passing situations; and if one of our boundary CBs struggles in some particular match-up, we have a reliable replacement ready.

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13TimeChamps's picture

January 08, 2022 at 01:26 pm

I think moving him to the slot would not be wise. The risk of getting re-injured, particularly if his shoulder is not 100%, is greater playing him inside than him playing him outside on the boundary.

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Guam's picture

January 08, 2022 at 03:31 pm

Totally agree 13TC. Leave Jaire on the boundary where his cover skills can really help the defense and he is less likely to reinjure that shoulder. Sullivan or Douglas can play the slot and Douglas would be a good dime CB as his size allows him to match up well with TEs.

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murf7777's picture

January 09, 2022 at 08:10 am

I have to respectfully disagree. Playing Stokes, Douglas and Sullivan as you said do a “good” job isn’t enough in the playoffs. When you have a “franchise” type CB who is ready to play, you play him. I’m not sure who should sit, but it isn’t Alexander. With Alexander you literally take away 1/2 of the field. You can be much more aggressive with a pass rush with that type of player.

Maybe Stokes ends up being the dime CB as Douglas has shown to be more instinctive and better at making the INT’s which are potential game changers or winners. If he’s healthy, The last thing I would do is sit Alexander for any part of the game. You have to win two games to get into the SB thus you play your best players.

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Coldworld's picture

January 08, 2022 at 12:52 pm

A lot depends on whether Jaire is healthy or just healthy enough to play through the shoulder. If he’s in a harness, he likely has some restricted movement and vulnerability. Good corners can play almost one armed: remember Tramon a few years back. That doesn’t mean that they can play as well as they ordinarily could or that they can be as physical. Ordinarily, that confined them to the boundary.

If Jaire is back to full health, it’s not an issue, but that seems not to be the expectation LaFleur has had, reading how he has referenced the issue. If he’s truly healthy you get him reps interspersed and, if it goes well, you stick him right back on the best receiver. Shut down corners are rare. If it’s somewhere in between, then he’s likely a situational piece on passing downs.

7 points
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Johnblood27's picture

January 09, 2022 at 08:34 am

no harness for an AC injury, it does not effect the ball joint at all.

1 points
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Minniman's picture

January 08, 2022 at 01:27 pm

We know this - the teams that have done well this year against the Packers have attacked the seam with TE's, then thrown long. Frankly, the Packers have been somewhat lucky that a number of those long throw attempts were errant throws, else the stats would not be quite as flattering.

For mine, and as Coldworld pointed out above, the real question is just how able is JA. If he's truly good to go, then it's hard not to play him at his natural position (it would also allow greater flexibility for use of the Safeties as well)....... but on the countenance, un-scouted different defensive looks against teams with good TE's may just make them either burn timeouts or mess plays up.

On the goal-line I'd be more inclined to play Douglas, as he seems to have good anticipation, hands and a nose for the ball........... Remember, JA has dropped a number of catch-able interceptions in his career too.

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PhantomII's picture

January 08, 2022 at 04:16 pm

Savage is the weakest link so far this season. I would sit him and rotate JA in.

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HarryHodag's picture

January 08, 2022 at 04:58 pm

Savage is a safety and Alexander is a corner. The jobs are not interchangeable.

Savage has hardly been a weak link.

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egbertsouse's picture

January 08, 2022 at 07:03 pm

Uhhhhhh…..yes, he has.

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egbertsouse's picture

January 08, 2022 at 07:03 pm

Uhhhhhh…..yes, he has.

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egbertsouse's picture

January 08, 2022 at 07:03 pm

Uhhhhhh…..yes, he has.

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Kevin Carpenter's picture

January 08, 2022 at 08:11 pm

I don't agree with that. Alexander has the ball skills and the tackling ability to play FS if they wanted him to. Savage has been one of the biggest liabilities, in coverage only, however. He's still a good tackler. Alexander is NOT ready to be laying the wood from the FS position though.

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Lphill's picture

January 09, 2022 at 09:38 am

Savage has regressed this year.

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Oppy's picture

January 08, 2022 at 04:59 pm

It's easy to assume a DB is a DB, but there's definitely nuance to the differences between a corner and a safety. Just from an instincts level, corners are reactive by nature, adjusting to what is happening in directly in front of them, while safeties are more predictive and are often basing their approach on what is transpiring on a half or a third of the field of play.

I don't know that dropping Jaire into a free safety position is that easy. It's tempting to think it would be an upgrade, though.

1 points
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Johnblood27's picture

January 09, 2022 at 08:39 am

Phantom beat me to it.

Sit Savage, he has been a liability in coverage and not very adept with his tackling either. He has clearly regressed this year.

I am thinking that Douglas might do a creditable job as a safety.

Instincts - check
Good hands - check
Sure tackler - check
Speed and range - almost check, might be good enough for a solid safety, but not a sideline to sideline mistake eraser.

I hate to make huge changes so late in the season, but either moving Douglas to replace the weakest link - Savage - or move Stokes to swing boundary CB seem to be the moves when Jaire comes back.

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jannes bjornson's picture

January 09, 2022 at 09:04 am

In passing situations they have three guys capable of boundary work with Jaire and Stokes the fastest. Move Douglas into the slot and Sullivan back to his Dime spot. A pretty solid group. I would leave Douglas on the perimeter in run sets and protect Jaire.

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GregC's picture

January 08, 2022 at 05:00 pm

The really good news is that, at minimum, Kevin King's spot in the rotation will now be taken by Jaire Alexander. This means that if everyone stays healthy from here on out, King will be on the field very seldom and maybe not at all. King hasn't been too bad overall this year, but he's always an accident waiting to happen.

I would go the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" route and keep Sullivan in the slot while slowly working Alexander into the outside CB rotation, or in the slot on obvious passing situations, as splitpea1 suggested above. If Alexander plays great, simply have him replace Stokes.

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murf7777's picture

January 09, 2022 at 08:16 am

And slowly lose a game that maybe you wouldn’t if Alexander was in there. Hands down, Alexander is the best player on this D. To win a SB you must have difference makers and Alexander is one. Take the last SB win, if Matthews wasn’t playing they don’t make the big fumble play at the beginning of the 4th quarter and probably lose that game. You play Alexander for every play in the playoffs.

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GregC's picture

January 09, 2022 at 10:42 am

As I said, if Alexander plays great, simply have him replace Stokes. He probably will not be up to full speed immediately.

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Slim11's picture

January 09, 2022 at 12:06 pm

Rotate Alexander in for snaps at his normal CB position. At best, King is now the dime CB.

Given his size, should King be considered for a move to S? He has weaknesses, but would a position change benefit him and the team? I wouldn't even entertain any thought of moving Alexander to S.

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HarryHodag's picture

January 08, 2022 at 05:00 pm

Alexander is an All-Pro. Before his injury he was considered among the elite corners in the league. It's nonsense to think he would play anywhere else.

The real choice is who plays the opposite corner, Stokes or Douglas?

The return of the All-Pros means the Packers have depth galore.

8 points
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murf7777's picture

January 09, 2022 at 08:19 am

Harry, I agree. Alexander is a rare breed who can take away 1/2 of the field allowing the defense to play more aggressive. More defenders on the other half of the field also will create more turnover opportunities. Playing him in the slot where he has little experience and rarely plays would be a mistake.

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PatrickGB's picture

January 09, 2022 at 09:55 am

What has been interesting is that Coach Grey has suggested that Alexander could play slot. I heard that intimation at least twice. Like others here I cringe at the thought of him tackling with a bum shoulder. Yet I also remember what a willing and skilled tackler he was. I remember him taking on Gronk and that says a lot. As Coach Smith says “If you play scared you will get hurt”. Just let Jare be himself.

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Starrbrite's picture

January 08, 2022 at 06:43 pm

As if what I believe where he should play matters.
That said, I like what HarryHodag said, “Alexander is an all-pro”, but that means (imo), he will likely succeed in whatever position you place him. In my view, I believe he would excel in the slot and be a consistent help to the corners and safeties.

3 points
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jh9's picture

January 08, 2022 at 09:23 pm

Here is an interesting take from Lance Zierlein NFL.com Draft Overview:
“Savage will offer an interesting litmus test for how teams value instincts, IQ and coverage quickness against size. He sports a compact frame with a muscular build and was actually bigger at the combine than some scouts expected. His sticky cover skills and ability to close on throws from all areas of the field are valuable commodities that should not be undervalued. Savage should be targeted as a Day 2 hybrid defender offering early starting potential as a two-high zone or slot cover talent.”

Savage has been okay, but not the impact player at safety we hoped he would be. Maybe he should be moved to slot cover and have Douglas play safety. Douglas might not be as fast as Savage, but he has a nose for the ball, ball skills, and is a sure tackler.

4 points
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Starrbrite's picture

January 08, 2022 at 08:32 pm

That’s an excellent take.

3 points
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PhantomII's picture

January 08, 2022 at 08:37 pm

That is what I was thinking when I commented. Douglas is by and far the best DB for rooting out the ball in the air and enough athleticism to make a play for it. Characteristics of an ideal FS, and is a pretty good tackler also.

5 points
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Coldworld's picture

January 08, 2022 at 11:08 pm

Long speed would be a problem. He excels in short area quickness. We’d be taking his strengths and magnifying his shortcomings. In the slot, Douglas might excel, but he’s not a FS.

2 points
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jh9's picture

January 09, 2022 at 08:29 am

Many consider Justin Simmons of the Denver Broncos to be the best safety this year. His 40 time was 4.61.
Rasul Douglas’ 40 time was 4.60. Adrian Amos’ 40 time was 4.39. Why can’t Amos play FS?

1 points
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Since'61's picture

January 08, 2022 at 09:55 pm

I would play Alexander and Stokes on the boundary. Sullivan can play the slot and Douglas can cover the TE.

I would not want Alexander in the slot with an increased potential to reinsure this shoulder.

Thanks, Since '61

3 points
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Johnblood27's picture

January 09, 2022 at 08:46 am

so 4 CB in? does a safety sit or are we in dime the entire game?

in situations your set up is ideal, as a base or nickle look one has to come off.

Campbell is an every down guy, we need 2-3 DL with 2 OLB every snap or we get run over like an armadillo/possum in west Texas. against running teams we will probably also have Barnes on the field.

no room on the field for 4 CB regularly.

back to square one... situational substitutions - if you can make them.

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Since'61's picture

January 09, 2022 at 09:58 am

My bad Johnblood. I should have clarified that our CB rotation would be based on down and distance. You are correct in that we cannot play 4 CBs for an entire game. Basically I'm saying that we play Alexander and Stokes as our boundary CBs. Then we bring in Douglas in nickel and Sullivan in dime.

The NFL has become a game of personnel packages. With Alexander and Stokes we're fine at CB in terms of matching up against our opponents #1 and 2 receivers. We need to match up Douglas and Sullivan with our opponents slot and TE as appropriate. We cannot allow slot receivers and TEs running free up the seem in the middle of the field as we have seen far too often this season. Stokes and Alexander can shut down the boundary but we need to shut down the middle as well. That is where I see Douglas and Sullivan making a difference once Alexander returns. Our defense has improved this season but we still allow too many 3rd and long to become converted into first downs. We need to prevent those plays and get out defense off the field. Thanks, Since '61

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Johnblood27's picture

January 10, 2022 at 09:24 am

shutting down the middle would be a whole lot easier if Savage actually played worth a shit... He has been absolutely terrible all season long. I used most of my swear words on him since game one.

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