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Packers unlikely CB combo of Alexander-Breeland works for now

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- In Jaire Alexander, the Green Bay Packers have an energetic, young cornerback who’s ready to take on any receiver -- big or small, tall or short, fast or physical.

In Bashaud Breeland, the Packers have a laid-back veteran who’s content to play a co-starring role so long as he gets his chances to make plays.

Together, they might form Green Bay’s best cornerback combination, at least for the rest of this season.

While Alexander shadowed Falcons All-Pro receiver Julio Jones on Sunday, Breeland was limited to just 23 snaps while he worked his way back from a nagging groin injury. But it worked out about as well as defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and defensive passing game coordinator Joe Whitt could have imagined.

While Jones caught eight passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns, it was a quiet 8-106-2. Alexander had near-textbook coverage on Jones’ first two catches -- for 28 yards and 19 yards -- that interim coach Joe Philbin challenged unsuccessfully. And in the second half, Jones caught four passes for just 37 yards, including a meaningless touchdown when the Packers were leading 34-7.

Meanwhile, Breeland made perhaps the defensive play of the game when he undercut an out route by tight end Austin Hooper, picked off Matt Ryan and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter when it was still a 10-7 game. Breeland also recovered a fumble later.

“I feel like we could be a one-two punch,” Breeland said Monday. “I feel like we can bring that same energy to the defense.”

Perhaps more than anything, it’s Alexander’s energy that has been so impressive. For weeks now, he has been assigned to cover the opponents’ No. 1 receivers -- from Adam Thielen in Minnesota to Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals and most recently Jones.

“I noticed his energy right from the day he got here,” Philbin said. “And I think that seems to be just kind of a little bit of who he is. That’s a really, really positive trait to have in this game. Looks like he loves to compete. So he was lining up against a pretty darn good receiver. This guy is, you know, about as good as there is in the game. And he certainly doesn’t lack confidence. To his credit, he stayed mostly healthy throughout the year. He’s a hard worker and I think that competitive nature of his and that love of the game just kind of helps probably fuel him a little bit.”

Most thought Kevin King, the Packers’ top draft pick in 2017, would be the Packers’ matchup cornerback this season. But a second straight season that ended for King on injured reserve accelerated the need for Alexander to be that player as a rookie. And that’s just fine with the 18th overall pick in this year’s draft.

“I thought it was pretty cool, I was given that task,” Alexander said of covering Jones. “I knew it was going to be a big task. I thought it was pretty cool knowing that a guy I used to play with on Madden I’m covering.”

Alexander’s confidence showed from the get-go in training camp. But perhaps more importantly, he has shown a willingness to learn from his mistakes rather than make excuses for them. He also has learned from other players’ mistakes, something he did in his preparation for Jones.

“A lot of people were giving him a lot of respect, a little bit too much,” he said. “I saw that on film. Any time I got up there and challenged him, that was a bigger difficulty. When I played off, I gave up that touchdown. I’ll go out and say it before I’m asked, yes I gave up that touchdown.”

Instead of a King-Alexander pairing, the Packers’ best cornerback combination the rest of the way might be Alexander and Breeland. For Breeland, it has been a long road back from the debacle that was his offseason, when he signed a three-year, $24 million contract with the Panthers in free agency only to have it nullified after a failed physical because of a bizarre foot injury that occurred while he was on vacation.

Breeland was out of the NFL until he signed with the Packers in late September for a minimum deal. He picked off his first pass in the Nov. 11 game against Miami but then missed two of the next three games because of a groin injury. No other Packers player had an interception in the time between Breeland’s against the Dolphins and Sunday against the Falcons.

“We haven’t had a pick in a while,” Alexander said. “He might have been the last one to get one. Shoot, having him back, that was big, for sure.”