Packers’ cornerbacks prep for rematch with Jones, Falcons
GREEN BAY, Wis. — The Green Bay Packers are so confident in their new-and-improved cornerback group that they released the player who shadowed Atlanta Falcons star receiver Julio Jones in last season’s NFC championship game.
LaDarius Gunter, who drew the unenviable assignment of covering Jones in January, was let go this week. He dropped down the depth chart after Green Bay brought back veteran Davon House in free agency and used its first draft pick in April on Kevin King. Returning players Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, who were slowed by groin injuries last season, are healthy.
The Packers relied on House, Randall and Rollins to help limit Russell Wilson to 14-of-27 passing for 158 yards in a 17-9 victory over the Seattle Seahawks fueled by defense. The challenge will be much bigger on Sunday night when the Packers return to Atlanta for a rematch against the Falcons.
Atlanta, with reigning MVP quarterback Matt Ryan and Jones leading the way, have one of the NFL’s top offenses. In the championship game, Ryan threw for 392 yards and four touchdowns. Jones caught a 5-yard touchdown pass just before halftime and then ran through the Packers’ secondary for a 73-yard touchdown to start the third quarter. That made it 31-0 en route to a 44-21 victory.
“We’re just going to do what we have to do to slow him down and just try to slow down the Atlanta offense,” Randall said. “They’ve got more than just Julio. They have a ton of great guys.”
Randall, the team’s first-round pick in 2015, is looking forward to the matchup after enduring a miserable second season. He missed five games — including the Week 8 matchup at Atlanta — following midseason groin surgery. Randall returned for the stretch run but wasn’t close to full speed.
“It’s a different game for me,” Randall said. “That I can move around the way I want to, that I can tackle the way I want to, press the way I want to, that’s just a big, big difference in my game.”
Rollins, a 2015 second-round pick, played through a groin injury before having surgery in the offseason. Those injuries, plus veteran starter Sam Shields’ season-ending concussion in the 2016 opener, left the secondary in shambles for the biggest game of the season.
“It’s a new year. It’s definitely a different mindset heading into this game,” Rollins said.
That improvement led to the release of Gunter, who started 18 games including all three playoff games. An undrafted free agent who made the Packers as a rookie in 2015, Gunter played only two defensive snaps against Seattle.
He was claimed off waivers by Carolina on Wednesday.
“You talk about a young man, LaDarius, just the way he came in here, took full advantage of his opportunity and did everything right,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
NOTES: The Packers released veteran DT Ricky Jean Francois on Wednesday. They activated WR Geronimo Allison from the suspended list and promoted undrafted rookie OL Adam Pankey from the practice squad. Pankey would provide critical depth at offensive tackle. Starting RT Bryan Bulaga has missed three weeks with an ankle injury and was absent Wednesday because of illness. Starting LT David Bakhtiari (hamstring) was limited on Wednesday, while top backup Jason Spriggs (hamstring) will miss at least a couple weeks after getting hurt against Seattle. … The release of Jean Francois, who was one of the Packers’ offseason free-agent additions, signals that Quinton Dial is ready to contribute to the defensive line. Last week, the Packers signed Dial, who started the past two seasons for San Francisco, but he was inactive against Seattle. Third-round pick Montravius Adams, who missed most of training camp with a foot injury, returned to practice last week and will do more individual drills this week, McCarthy said.