GREEN BAY – When anyone brings up the NFC Divisional playoff at Dallas with Kentrell Brice, inevitably the conversation turns to his highlight-reel hit over the middle on Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley.
Somehow Beasley hung onto the ball while absorbing quite the wallop from the Packers’ rookie safety.
But deeper in Brice’s memory bank is another play from that game, a long pass down the middle intended for Terrance Williams. Brice made a leaping play on the ball at the goal line to break it up, but he was stewing that he didn’t haul in the interception.
It still bothers him.
“I have to make plays like that,” Brice said as the Packers wrapped up their offseason program last week. “The ball hit my hands. Anytime the ball hits your hands you have to come down with it as a DB.
“During the game, you can’t think about it. But after the game, and still to this day … it was an interception at a critical moment in a critical game. I’ve been working on my hands to get things right. I’ve been thinking about it.”
Plays like that will help take Brice’s game up a notch in his second NFL season.
He was a big part of the Packers’ playoff win at Dallas, filling in from the first quarter on for an injured Morgan Burnett and acquitting himself well.
If he continues his rise, which began as an undrafted free agent from Louisiana Tech last season, he’s in line for plenty of playing time in Year 2 as the Packers look to use more and more defensive backs in sub-packages.
The potential deployment of Burnett and rookie second-round pick Josh Jones near the line of scrimmage could create snaps for Brice in the back end alongside Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but with that will come more communication responsibilities.
That’s been a focus for Brice this offseason, and he’s making progress. On one play during minicamp last week, Brice grabbed Jones before the snap to adjust his alignment against a particular offensive formation. Head Coach Mike McCarthy called it a “great example” of the strides coaches are looking for in second-year players.
“Be loud, be commanding and be assertive,” safeties coach Darren Perry said of the verbal demands at the position. “We ask all those guys to do that. Some are better than others. Some are capable, but they don’t have that confidence to do it right off the bat. But he’s improving, and we’re going to keep asking him to be more of a vocal leader for us.”
Brice is a quiet, serious, no-nonsense football player, and it has served him well. But as Perry guides his growth, he could only smile when he saw the 5-11, 200-pound Brice get into a bit of a shouting match with the 6-6, 275 tight end Martellus Bennett at an OTA practice this spring.
“I said, ‘Man, you need to be vocal like that all the time,’” Perry said. “It was kind of like poking the bear. He got riled up. It was neat to see.”
No one needs to prod Brice to bring it as a tackler, though. Prior to the Beasley hit, back in Atlanta in Week 8, Brice stoned Falcons running back Terron Ward at the goal line after a checkdown reception in the flat.
He’s heard plenty about that hit, too.
“I broke out of the end zone, and we had a lot of space in the open field,” Brice said, recalling the play. “I was thinking he would try to shake me at first, so I just tried to gauge his body language. He started lowering his shoulder, so I knew he wouldn’t try to shake me at the last minute. It was just me and him at that point.
“I just try to set the tone, to let opposing offenses know that someone’s on the field that likes to hit.”
The punch Brice packs was first noticed last season on special teams, and he ended up tied for second on the team with 11 coverage tackles in the regular and postseason combined.
Perry said Brice’s ability to “knock ball-carriers back” stands out, and so far he’s employed his physical style the right way in the safety-conscious NFL. Perry will continue to help him walk that line, bringing a hint of “intimidation” to the defense without drawing the eye or ire of the officials.
Perry also noted Brice added some size in the offseason without compromising his impressive speed, which should only help him.
“Last year we always used to joke a little bit about his weight because he wasn’t a big guy, but he was explosive, and he was powerful,” Perry said. “Pound for pound, he was probably our most explosive hitter, but this year, you can see he’s a little thicker in his build.”
Having a full season in Dom Capers’ defense under his belt will aid his development even more. Brice described going from “tense and tight” at times to playing “freely” as his scheme knowledge increased, which is typical for any rookie.
What Brice additionally has going for him is more snaps, in high-pressure situations, than any player in his shoes could have expected in 2016.
Now, he wants to make the most of them, like the near-INT at Dallas in the end zone. Fortunately, four plays after Brice missed his turnover opportunity, Micah Hyde bailed the defense out with an interception in the red zone when he jumped a quick out at the line of scrimmage.
Well, now Hyde is gone, and Brice might have to be that guy.
“Someone has to step up,” he said. “We have guys that got drafted and came in, and we’ve got guys that are here. We’ll all compete in camp, and it’s all going to take our game to another level. Someone will step up.
“We just have to work together and fight together and try to get the best 11 on the field.”