Thu, 25 Feb 2021

Jaire Alexander owns his swagger in shutdown season

Packers
16 Jan 2021, 17:12 GMT+10

Packers cornerback has locked down opposition during All-Pro campaign Wes Hodkiewicz

GREEN BAY - Swagger has been a popular buzz word inside the Packers' locker room this season, often used to describe the unquantifiable inertia powering the team's 13-win campaign.

It's a mindset and a lifestyle. An unshakable confidence in one's ability to overcome regardless of the circumstances.

And when it comes to which member of Green Bay's roster personifies that ideal more than anyone, it's a fairly easy answer whenever players and coaches are surveyed for their opinion.

"Jaire always has it," defensive coordinator Mike Pettine responded.

"A guy who has the most swagger? I'd probably say Ja'," defensive lineman Kenny Clark said.

"Jaire has his own little swag to him," added receiver Davante Adams recently. "It's something I really appreciate."

Swagger and Jaire Alexander are synonymous with one another. It's who he is and how he plays. It's an attitude born out of not arrogance, but rather an indomitable confidence cultivated over years of proving the doubters wrong in his journey from a three-star recruit to one of the NFL's brightest young stars.

The flashy sunglasses and apparel offer a glimpse into Alexander's colorful personality, but the true measure of the man can be seen in how he's embraced life on an island, with no safety in sight, on most weekends during his breakout season.

More often than not, Alexander has stood mano-y-mano with the fastest and most explosive receiver the opposition has to offer, a high-wire act where one misstep could result in disaster for the defense and embarrassment for the young cornerback.

Yet, this is where Alexander feels most alive. While having 20 cameras circled around him in a traditional locker-room setting isn't exactly Alexander's idea of a good time, he wants the spotlight on him whenever he's on the field.

He's welcomed that pressure since the Packers drafted him 18th overall out of Louisville in 2018. His unparalleled self-confidence acted as the precursor for the shutdown cornerback Alexander has become over the past three years.

"I tell you guys all the time, he's been different since he came here, as far as his attention to detail. Everything about him seems super vet-like to me," said Adams last month. "He came in with this swag, this personality on the field that we hadn't really seen around here for a while."

That "swag" is justified. Alexander has been one of the league's most difficult puzzles to solve in 2020. According to Pro Football Focus, Alexander conceded just 35 catches (on 69 targets) for 337 yards and two touchdowns (with one interception) to opposing receivers in 2020.

His 0.64 yards allowed per snap were second fewest to only Los Angeles' Jalen Ramsey (0.53) among cornerbacks with at least 400 coverage snaps, while Alexander's 68.3 opponent passer rating was fourth lowest among cornerbacks.

And it hasn't come against nobodies, either. Alexander has toed the line against Mike Evans, Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, Calvin Ridley, Allen Robinson, A.J. Brown and Marvin Jones on his way to his first Pro Bowl nod and a spot on the AP All-Pro second team.

"Just to see all his hard work come to fruition on the field, I'm so happy for him," nickel cornerback Chandon Sullivan said. "I feel like he should've been first team but that's another discussion. He just raises the level in our room. We see how well he's playing and it challenges us."

Pettine, in his third season as Green Bay's defensive coordinator, knows a thing or two about how a lockdown cornerback can change the complexion of a defense.

He had one of the game's best, Darrelle Revis, for four seasons with the New York Jets. "Revis Island" was the Bermuda Triangle in Pettine's defense from 2009-12, erasing half the field for the opposing quarterback and leaving receivers disoriented.

Alexander is a different type of corner playing in a different era, but his level of play has enabled Pettine to be more flexible with how he utilizes safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage on the back end, especially with Amos playing closer to the line of scrimmage to aid the run defense as of late.

"That's what's always nice about Jaire, where you know you always feel good about his area of the field," Pettine said. "If I know one side of the field's locked down, you can take that safety and put him somewhere else and you maybe have a lurker in the middle of the field as opposed to a guy who has to sit on the deep half.

"So he's playing at a high level and it's great as a coordinator when you have that. And the times that we haven't this year, I mean, it's definitely had an effect on our play."

Defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, a former four-time Pro Bowl cornerback in his own right, appreciates how the 23-year-old Alexander properly balances his confidence with understanding he's still not a finished product.

Coach and player worked ad nauseum this summer to round out Alexander's game, pushing the 5-foot-10, 196-pound corner past specializing in press-man coverage and learning how to integrate off-coverage into his game when the situation warrants it.

The expansion of Alexander's skillset contributed to him leading Green Bay in passes defensed (13) for the second straight year despite QBs targeting him 35 fewer times (104 in 2019 to 69), which can be a blessing a curse.

"The biggest thing you have to do is you have to fight against yourself of getting complacent," Gray said. "That they won't try you, and then somebody will come up there and they'll try you. So you have to be able to compete all the time within yourself, even when the ball is not coming your way. 'Hey, am I doing the right thing? Am I on my receiver? Am I being disciplined?'"

Alexander has maintained tunnel vision throughout. In his most recent group interview on Christmas Eve, he talked openly about not being the tallest or biggest player on the field - but he has one superpower few others can match: swagger.

It's evident in his play style, in his candor and in his interactions with teammates (Alexander says he has a handshake with "everybody on the team"). Simply put, he's not afraid to show who he is and what he's about.

When asked about if he'd prefer to move around more, Alexander slips back in his chair and says with a wry smile, "I like having the island. It's pretty cool. Not too many visitors."

That's Jaire Alexander. That's "J-Money." And now is when that confidence matters most, with the Packers just one of eight remaining teams vying for the Lombardi Trophy.

In Alexander, the defense has its first All-Pro corner in nearly a decade (Charles Woodson, 2011) and it's going to be relying on him to help the Packers advance to their third NFC title game in five years with a win over the Los Angeles Rams on Saturday.

If Green Bay has learned anything the past three years, it's that the moment isn't going to be too big for its star cornerback.

"My swagger just comes from knowing myself, loving myself and having confidence," said Alexander last month. "I think that's important, in order to have that swag is to have that confidence in yourself and being able to love yourself. Not being afraid to shine a light."

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