Early-season injuries have placed larger spotlight on DB depth Wes Hodkiewicz
GREEN BAY - With each new season comes a new series of challenges.
For the Packers, the opening month of the 2021 campaign has tested the team's patience and resiliency after a slew of injuries on both sides of the ball.
The secondary, in particular, has been one unit that's needed to adapt on the fly with Jaire Alexander on injured reserve for at least two more games after the All-Pro cornerback banged up his shoulder in a 27-17 win over Pittsburgh in Week 4.
On the opposite side, veteran Kevin King's availability for Sunday's game in Chicago remains uncertain after the fifth-year cornerback sustained a shoulder injury of his own during last week's 25-22 overtime victory over the Bengals.
The Packers finished the game with rookie first-round pick Eric Stokes and Isaac Yiadom guarding the perimeter, while safety Adrian Amos dropped in the box in the six-DB dime package.
"There's definitely been a little bit more adversity on that front," said Head Coach Matt LaFleur on Thursday of the team's injury situation. "I do think there's some benefit to that just in terms of being able to play multiple people and get them reps. There's no substitute for live game reps and so you start to develop some other guys."
The immediate Year 1 impact of Stokes has been essential for the defense early on. After playing just eight snaps in the opener against New Orleans, Stokes now leads Green Bay's secondary with seven passes defensed.
Two weeks ago, against Pittsburgh, the 22-year-old snagged his first career interception off future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger to help put away the Steelers.
Known for his blazing 4.25 speed, Stokes has flashed plenty of intangibles that can't be measured or timed. Through his first five NFL games, Stokes has displayed uncommon moxie that has impressed position coach Jerry Gray and his teammates.
"Corner is one of the hardest positions to come in and play right away as a rookie and he just goes out there, most importantly, with confidence," said Yiadom, now in his fifth NFL season. "He fights to the end. He knows how to use his speed and technique at the right time. (Coach Gray) does a hell of a job helping him out game-planning and helping him play to his strengths. I think he's going to be a hell of a player in this league."
While Stokes was cemented into the Packers' plan for 2021, Yiadom dropped into Green Bay midway through training camp following a trade that sent former second-round pick Josh Jackson to the New York Giants.
Having to pick up a new playbook on the fly wasn't unusual for Yiadom, who also had to do it last year after the Denver Broncos traded him to New York at the end of training camp.
The 25-year-old cornerback played sparingly until Alexander's injury two weeks ago. Yiadom had five tackles on 18 snaps in relief of Alexander against Pittsburgh before playing another 26 snaps against the Bengals following King's injury.
Yiadom claims the summertime switch went relatively smoothly, due to having experience in a comparable defensive system to the one Joe Barry utilizes in Green Bay.
It stems from the season Yiadom spent playing for Vic Fangio in Denver back in 2019. Fangio's outside linebackers coach that year was current Los Angeles Chargers coach Brandon Staley, who served as the Rams' defensive coordinator last season.
Staley's linebackers coach? Joe Barry.
"I think he's played well," said Amos, who also played for Fangio for three seasons with the Chicago Bears. "He played for Vic and Ed Donatell who I played (with) before, so when he came, I was using some of the terminology they used and, I'm like, 'All right, this is similar to this,' to get him caught up sometimes. I just think he's a physical player. ... I think he's coming in and fitting in right."
More has been asked of Amos and third-year safety Darnell Savage without Alexander and King. In addition to dropping into the box in the dime, Amos made one of the game's biggest plays when he intercepted former top pick Joe Burrow.
His interception marked the defense's fourth consecutive game with at least one takeaway, the Packers' longest streak since the 2017 season.
Beyond asking their own secondary to step up, the Packers have summoned free-agent reinforcements. In recent weeks, they have not only signed former Philadelphia third-round pick Rasul Douglas to the active roster but also added veteran Quinton Dunbar to the team's practice squad this week.
Dunbar got his start under Barry in Washington back in 2015. Originally signed as an undrafted receiver, Dunbar moved to cornerback during training camp his rookie year after Washington's secondary was besieged by injury.
Dunbar impressed the coaching staff during joint practices against the Houston Texans and stayed on the defensive side of the ball. In six NFL seasons, the 6-foot-2, 202-pound cornerback has 180 tackles, 40 passes defensed and 10 interceptions.
"This guy was a down-the-line, training-camp (guy)," said Barry, Washington's defensive coordinator from 2015-16. "He was gonna get cut and probably never make it. Then, bam, he was able to be in the right place at the right time, in that moment. And he's put together a pretty nice NFL career."
With King missing the first two days of practice this week, there's a chance it's be all-hands-on-deck again this Sunday against the Bears, who are dealing with their own injury issues.
Pro Bowl receiver Allen Robinson hasn't practiced this week due to an ankle injury, while Darnell Mooney has been limited with a groin. Veteran running back Damien Williams, playing in place of an injured David Montgomery, was also added to the COVID-19/reserve list on Thursday.
Yiadom, Stokes and the rest of the Packers' defensive backs are staying flexible through the early-season adversity. Regardless of who's available, the secondary understands its responsibility in making sure the defense continues to climb the ladder.
"It's the league," Yiadom said. "Whenever your name and number are called, that's why you're on the 53-man roster. You just have to be ready, not a big surprise. Every game, I prepare like I'm a starter. Whenever my name is called, I won't miss a beat."
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