Coach Mike McCarthy no doubt already has decided how the Packers will cover the Atlanta Falcons receiver but even before this week it was clear that LaDarius Gunter wouldn’t draw that assignment again like he did in last year’s NFC Championship Game.
In another sign of just how different the Packers’ defense is eight months after Jones and Matt Ryan torched them in the Georgia Dome, Gunter wasn’t even in the cornerback rotation in last week’s season-opening win over the Seahawks. Still, it came as at least a mild surprise that Gunter was cut on Tuesday to make room for receiver Geronimo Allison, who came off the suspended list.
Less than eight months ago, Gunter was the Packers’ No. 1 cornerback during the playoff run. The Packers assigned him to shadow Jones after he managed – with help – to slow down Odell Beckham Jr. (four catches for 28 yards) in the wild-card game. But Dez Bryant (nine catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns) torched Gunter and the Packers in the divisional round, and Jones (nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns) made them look even worse.
Still, he played the most snaps (1,060) among Packers cornerbacks last season.
“LaDarius, just the way he came in here, took full advantage of his opportunity and did everything right,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “When it was his opportunity to play, he practiced hard and played harder and was always available.”
Gunter’s biggest downfall was his speed, or lack of it.
The Packers have made a concerted effort to get faster on defense, which is one of the reasons defensive coordinator Dom Capers has gone to his “nitro” package that features a safety (Morgan Burnett) at inside linebacker.
"I definitely can tell the speed that guys are playing with, that definitely is evident," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said on a conference call with reporters at Lambeau Field. "I hope when you see our defense, we’ve added some as well. I would say both defenses look to be playing faster than they did. From the end of last year to the start of this year, you can definitely see that both defenses have added speed to their units."
It became apparent this summer that Gunter wouldn’t have the same kind of role. During camp, he was no better than the No. 5 cornerback on the depth chart behind Davon House, Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and rookie Kevin King. The Packers kept seven corners on their 53, including Josh Hawkins and Lenzy Pipkins. Hawkins and Pipkins, who were inactive last week while Gunter played just two snaps on defense.
House might be the Packers’ best option against Jones. Even though he’s not the Packers’ fastest cornerback, he has the most experience against him both from his previous stint with the Packers and when he was in Jacksonville.
The Packers have options because they’re healthy, unlike last January when Sam Shields was on injured reserve and Randall and Rollins were banged up.
“I think it’s obvious we were a team that had a lot of things going on, fought through them, got to the NFC Championship Game,” McCarthy said. “I’ll state today as I said then, they played excellent and were deserving of going to the Super Bowl, but we kind of ran out of gas. It’s a new year. They’re a different team this year, we’re a different team. This is a different opportunity. We’re playing in Atlanta – new stadium, fast surface. Those are really the things that we’re focused on because, let’s be honest, if you’re thinking about last year and talking about last year, you’re just wasting time and energy.
"To get to the point where you’re playing in January and the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl, you’ve got to focus on what’s going on today. That’s really what our guys are focused on. They’ve got some new players, got a new offensive coordinator, got a new defensive coordinator calling the game. We understand we’re playing on turf. We had a chance to watch them play on grass last week. There’s definitely a difference when you play teams coming off a grass game and going onto a turf game. It’s our first game on the turf, first game in a domed stadium. How are you going to handle the noise? Those are the things that we’re focused on.”