Damarious Randall's strong rookie season marred by blown coverage on Larry Fitzgerald

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Damarious Randall’s season-long performance as a rookie gave the Green Bay Packers every reason to believe he will be one of their top cornerbacks for years.

But it was his mistake that started the chain reaction of events that led to the play that essentially ended their season.

Randall erred when he decided not to follow receiver Larry Fitzgerald on his crossing route that turned into a 75-yard catch-and-run on the first play of overtime in Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

Although it wasn’t the only miscue -- Mike Neal’s missed sack of quarterback Carson Palmer and three missed tackles on Fitzgerald also were problematic -- Randall’s was the only one that could be classified as an assignment error.

“He just needed to carry [Fitzgerald] across the field,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “Anytime you’re pressuring, it’s the combination of you have to make your shots count against the quarterback because if he can extend the play that long there’s probably going to be someone that comes open. Even the way the play developed, it should have been a 25-yard gain.”

Fitzgerald caught the ball at his own 35-yard line, and the nearest defender was some 10 yards away.

Sam Shields and Clay Matthews were the first of three defenders to miss a tackle at the Packers’ 46-yard line, and Morgan Burnett whiffed at the 30 before Casey Hayward finally tripped him up at the 5-yard line. Two plays later, Fitzgerald scored on a shovel pass to end the game.

“If you’re going to come back with a pressure, we had guys in position and Palmer rolled off them and bought time,” Capers said. “And so that extended the crossing route, which we should have carried. And then Fitzgerald, giving him that much space, we had three guys coming into position. He made a good move, cut back across the grain and again we missed three tackles, and we had three guys over-run the play and you saw the result of it.”

Capers absolved linebacker Julius Peppers of any responsibility for Fitzgerald. When Capers sent five pass-rushers after Palmer, Peppers dropped into coverage in order to track running back David Johnson. But Johnson stayed in to block, and when Palmer escaped to his right, Peppers charged after him.

“Julius was basically just doing what he was supposed to do,” Capers said.

Capers also insisted there was no miscommunication on the play call as Hayward suggested after the game, when he said “we blew a call, we blew a coverage.”

“None whatsoever,” Capers said, “Matter of fact, it was communicated on the sideline what the call was going to be and there was coaching going on on the sideline prior because we wanted to pressure him on first down.”

And that goes for Randall too.

“I think he knew the call,” Capers said. “But you have to evaluate how shallow the crossing route goes on that. If it goes under your underneath defenders than you have the ability to come off of that. If it goes over the top of him then you have to carry it.”

It was a tough end to what was a strong season for the 30th overall pick in the draft. Randall tied for the team lead in interceptions with three (including one he returned for a touchdown in Week 15 against the Raiders and was NFL’s defensive rookie of the month for November. In fact, the strong play of Randall and second-round pick Quinten Rollins likely means the Packers will let Hayward leave in free agency.

However, Randall also was involved in another one of the game’s big plays -- Palmer’s fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Michael Floyd that put the Cardinals ahead 17-13. On a pass intended for Fitzgerald, Randall broke it up but the ball deflected right to Floyd.

“I was doing my job; unfortunately my job got them a touchdown with the deflection,” Randall said. “I mean there's not much I can really say about that play.”