Packers: Gunter’s ascension not a surprise to his coaches
GREEN BAY — Dom Capers and Mike McCarthy insist they saw LaDarius Gunter’s emergence this season coming from the day the undrafted free agent cornerback joined the Green Bay Packers in May 2015.
While they weren’t quite sure how much of an impact Gunter would have this season — after all, he was pressed into service as the team’s No. 1 cornerback after veteran Sam Shields (concussion), 2015 first-round pick Damarious Randall (groin, shoulder, knee) and 2015 second-round pick Quinten Rollins (groin, neck, concussion) sustained injuries throughout the season — both the Packers veteran defensive coordinator and their longtime coach got a feeling from Gunter upon his arrival from Miami (Fla.).
That’s why neither is surprised by how well Gunter, whom McCarthy said has been the team’s top-graded cornerback this season, has played.
“You know, it really hasn’t (been a surprise), just because of his demeanor. I’ve liked Gunter’s demeanor from the very first time he came in,” Capers said this week, as the Packers prepped for Sundays NFC wild card playoff game against the New York Giants at Lambeau Field. “He doesn’t say a whole lot. He’s a quiet guy. But he’s all business.
“He competes — he really competes — on the practice field. To me, that’s a quality at that position. You’ve got to compete every down because you know that you can do your job for 57, 58 plays out of 60 and those two or three plays (where you don’t), those the ones that everybody remembers at that position. The experience has really helped him. He’s gotten better as the season has gone on.”
Said McCarthy: “He hasn’t changed since the day he got here. He came off the bus bumping and running and playing hard-nosed. … Just the way he plays the game, I mean, you love his toughness. He’s getting better and better each week. It’s just a real credit to him and his development.”
Gunter had perhaps his best game of the season in the Packers’ Oct. 9 meeting with the Giants, when he spent much of the game matched up with Giants No. 1 receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Although Beckham finished with five receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown, none of those catches came against Gunter. The Packers won 23-16 and the next week, Beckham caught eight passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-23 win over Baltimore. He finished the season with 101 receptions for 1,367 yards and 10 touchdowns — making it vital for the Packers to keep him in check Sunday.
The Packers ruled Rollins, who suffered a concussion and a neck injury in last Sunday night’s regular-season finale at Detroit, out for the game, while Randall, who was in and out of the lineup against the Lions, is listed as questionable but expects to play. Regardless, it would make sense for the Packers to use Gunter, who finished with 54 tackles and a team-best 12 pass break-ups but didn’t have an interception in the regular season, on Beckham frequently.
“You always get excited for the big-name guys coming in, but at the same time it’s not about that. It’s more so about executing the game plan and winning the game,” Gunter said of the potential matchup. “It should be fun.”
Gunter’s growth this season did not come without growing pains, however, as he struggled in the Packers’ Oct. 16 loss to Dallas and was uneven during the team’s four-game losing streak, giving up big plays in losses to Indianapolis and Washington. But he bounced back during the second half of the season and is on a path similar to that of Shields, who went from undrafted rookie to No. 1 cornerback.
“There have been a few bumps in the road but he’s a lot better football player now than he was at the beginning of this season,” Capers said. “I think the mental and psychological approach of those guys is just as important as their physical ability. You can’t let a bad play here or there influence the next play. You’ve got to be able to put that behind you and forget about it and move on and still be able to go out there and play with confidence and challenge people. And I think he’s done that.”
That he has.
“He’s, in my opinion, stepped up to the challenge. Each week he’s playing more aggressively, he’s playing with great confidence, he’s being a leader. And that’s hard for a second-year, free agent guy that probably played (eight) plays last year on defense,” said cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt, who likened Gunter’s hands-on, man-to-man coverage techniques to those of Seattle’s Richard Sherman and ex-Packers star Charles Woodson.
“To come into the season as being the No. 4, and now you’re not only being asked to be the No. 1, but you’re being asked to match guys. … People talk about his (lack of) speed, but he has mentally what it takes to be a very good player in this league. Some of these guys might have the speed and they can jump and they can do all of this and that, but mentally they don’t have it. And mentally, he does.”
While the Packers ruled out Rollins and running back James Starks (concussion), they listed five starters — Randall (knee), right tackle Bryan Bulaga (abdomen), receiver Randall Cobb (ankle), outside linebacker Nick Perry (hand) and inside linebacker Joe Thomas (back) — as questionable. Bulaga, Cobb, Perry and Randall practiced throughout the week and are expected to play. … Wide receiver Davante Adams was fined $12,154 for dunking the football over the goal post in celebration after his first touchdown against the Lions.