GREEN BAY — Matt LaFleur hadn’t spoken with the Green Bay Packers’ medical staff when he took to the Lambeau Field media auditorium podium following Sunday’s 27-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, so the coach had little more than hope to offer in the wake of All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander’s shoulder injury.
“Obviously, he’s a guy that’s really important to us, one of the premier corners in this league,” LaFleur said of Alexander, who injured what appeared to be his right shoulder while tackling Steelers running back Najee Harris on a fourth-down play during the third quarter. “Certainly we’d like him to (be OK). Hopefully, it all checks out well and he’ll be back with us.”
Asked if there was any chance that Alexander’s injury would turn out to be season-ending, LaFleur replied, “I have no idea. I have not heard yet. I’m hopeful he will be OK.”
NFL Network reported that the initial diagnosis of Alexander’s injury was that he damaged his A/C joint, although the severity was unknown and more tests were scheduled. The Packers were already playing without their other starting cornerback, Kevin King, who missed his second straight game with a concussion sustained Sept. 20 against Detroit.
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Rookie first-round pick Eric Stokes again started in his place and played well, although if Alexander isn’t able to play next Sunday at Cincinnati, the Packers will need King to be available. Without him and Alexander, the Packers played Stokes and fellow rookie Shemar Jean-Charles, a fifth-round pick, late in the game, with Stokes intercepting a Ben Roethlisberger pass with 1 minute, 11 seconds to play to dash any hopes the Steelers had of a comeback.“
Stokes, making that big-time interception there at the end, I was really proud for him,” LaFleur said. “We’re fortunate to have that guy on our football team. Certainly, we were getting thin there in the secondary towards the end of the game. It was cool to see some of those young guys get out there and make some plays.”
Ground and pound
LaFleur had made it a priority all week long to get the Packers’ running game going, and while the numbers weren’t off-the-charts great — 30 attempts for 129 yards (4.3 yards per carry) by running backs, plus quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ 4-yard touchdown run — he did get the ball into the hands of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon more than he had in the first three weeks.
Dillon carried 15 times for 81 yards, including a 25-yarder; Jones ran 15 times for 48 yards, including a 15-yarder, although he also lost a fumble. In the passing game, Jones caught three passes for 51 yards, including a 26-yarder, while Dillon had a 16-yard catch-and-run on the Packers’ first touchdown drive.
“That’s awesome. Anytime you can run the ball successfully and keep the chains moving, grind out those first downs, you put the offense in a great position to be successful (and) keep scoring,” Dillon said. “The running back room, that’s what we’re always aspiring to do.”
LaFleur also wanted to get Dillon more involved after he’d had only 15 carries for 55 yards in the first three weeks.
“We knew that we were going to involve AJ more, and he did a hell of a job,” LaFleur said. “Running off the field, I said, ‘Hey, way to step up.’ And then I caught myself. And I said, ‘No, he just got his opportunity.’ Because he’s been like this from Day 1, just prepares the right way. (I’m) just really happy that he was able to just go out and do what he does on a daily basis. And that certainly gives us more confidence to put him in there more.”
For the defense
For as maligned as the Packers defense has been, the unit did pull its weight on Sunday, even if Roethlisberger’s late-career struggles contributed to defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s guys’ success. The defense allowed only 282 yards, held the Steelers to just 62 rushing yards, had a pair of takeaways and stopped the Steelers on both of their fourth-down attempts. Roethlisberger was sacked twice and hit five times.
“I just think our defense is getting better and better and hopefully we can continue that,” LaFleur said. “I think Joe’s doing a good job of getting the calls into our guys and that has gotten better as the season’s progressed. I think that’s always important to make sure we get those calls in quickly to our guys so they can see the offense break the formation and go out and play ball. (We have to) make sure the communication’s on point, which I thought it was pretty good.”
The biggest play came from third-year defensive lineman Kingsley Keke, who had a strip-sack on Roethlisberger to set up the Packers’ second touchdown.
“To be able to make plays like that is huge,” Keke said. “It was huge for my confidence. I started getting it back last week. I was playing a lot more physical. I’m getting on a roll now. I feel like I’m in my X-factor. I’m coming back to myself, my confidence. I just have to keep it rolling and keep pushing forward.”
While special-teams coordinator Maurice Drayton had downplayed concerns about the team’s field-goal protection unit after the San Francisco 49ers narrowly missed blocking Mason Crosby’s game-winning 51-yard field goal last week, there’s clearly an issue there as the Steelers blocked Crosby’s 31-yard attempt just before halftime and returned it for a touchdown — until the play was wiped out by an offsides call on Joe Haden. Crosby then hit the resulting 26-yarder to send the Packers into halftime with a 17-10 lead.
Haden and Justin Layne came off the right side of the Packers’ formation and past tight end Robert Tonyan, and if Haden was indeed offsides, it wasn’t by much. LaFleur said after the game he thought right away that Haden was offsides but was told later that it was a close call.
“I’ll have to go back and look at it, but certainly in live time, you could tell they got a great jump on it,” LaFleur said. “I don’t know if it’s something we’re doing up front or whatnot, but I thought, ‘There’s no way they couldn’t have been offsides.’ But I heard it was pretty close. So we’ll definitely take a look at everything and find ways to try to improve and make sure we rectify those mistakes.”
LaFleur said he didn’t get much of an explanation as to why a tripping penalty initially called on Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt that would have nullified a sack of Rodgers was wiped out — even as replays clearly showed Watt sticking his foot out to upend a scrambling Rodgers. “I’m not going to get into that,” LaFleur said. “It’s one of those things where it’s a judgment call, and I think the official that threw (the flag) saw it right the first time. But it’s one of those things that happens.” … Having admonished fans for doing “The Wave” and “Go Pack Go!” chants while the offense was on the field in preseason, LaFleur now has taken to pumping up the crowd when the Packers defense is on the field — waving his arms up and down to the point that the scoreboard video operator is projecting him onto the screens. “I love it when our fans are loud,” LaFleur said. “I never go into a game thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, you’ve got to be a cheerleader down there,’ But when I heard them reacting and you could hear and feel it get louder, I was like, ‘All right, hey, this is what I have to do.’” … As expected, Yosh Nijman started at left tackle in place of injured Elgton Jenkins (ankle) again. “I’m proud of those guys. They battled really well,” Rodgers said. “You look at the sacks that we had, and it was just some miscommunication on the first one, a trip and a slide behind the line of scrimmage. I feel like they blocked really, really well.”