GREEN BAY — Play ball, G.
Every week, that little phrase was all LaDarius Gunter needed to psyche himself up for the next opponent and prepare for whatever challenge lay ahead.
Nerves meant nothing on game days. The only thing that matters to the Packers’ second-year cornerback is the receiver who lines up across from him.
On Sunday, that individual was New York Giants All-Pro receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
Perhaps nobody in the Packers’ defense had a bigger job responsibility than Gunter during Sunday’s NFC Wild Card game and he responded in helping contain Beckham to only four catches for 28 yards in a 38-13 win for the Packers.
“Every time I line up against whoever, it’s just, ‘Play ball, G,’” Gunter said. “That’s just how I go about everything. You don’t want to change-up nothing when the pressure is on. Just be yourself. That’s all I really can do.”
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers provided some help for Gunter with the scheme. The Packers occasionally rolled a safety over Beckham’s coverage and at times double-teamed him at the line of scrimmage.
However, there were also times when it was up to Gunter to contain Beckham on his own. In the end, Beckham’s four catches for 28 yards marked his lightest production since catching three passes for 23 yards against Minnesota in Week 4.
It’s also exactly half of the yards he had in his first matchup with Gunter and the Packers back in Week 5 (five catches for 56 yards and a touchdown).
“Gunt’s the man,” defensive back Micah Hyde said. “His film study, the way he competes. That’s a bad boy right there. He doesn’t get enough credit for the stuff he does. He did match (number) 13 today and he deserves the credit that he went out there and balled out.”
The Packers’ game plan for Sunday was predicated on how well they defended Beckham, who recently wrapped up his third consecutive season of having at least 90 catches, 1,300 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.
Gunter and safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett played a pivotal role in the Packers’ game plan in addition to the defensive front being able to manage the Giants’ running game with only six defenders in the box for most of the game.
The Packers held New York to only 17 carries for 70 yards while the secondary kept tabs on Beckham and Co. There were a couple big plays – a 51-yard pass to tight end Will Tye and Tavarres King’s 41-yard touchdown in the third quarter – but Green Bay’s secondary held its own for the most part.
With an easy route to Beckham, Eli Manning finished with a 72.1 passer rating in completing 23-of-44 passes for 299 yards, one touchdown and a late interception that Packers cornerback Damarious Randall returned 78 yards in the fourth quarter.
“Our mission was to take Odell out of the game being such an elite playmaker,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “We had, at times, two guys on him to keep an eye on him. Fortunately, I think we did a great job.”
Injuries have forced Gunter, a former undrafted free agent, into a significant role in the secondary. On Sunday, the Packers’ coaching staff showed confidence in the young cornerback to go toe-to-toe with one of the league’s top young receivers.
Gunter paid them back with a workmanlike performance.
“With a star receiver like that, you have to expect everything,” Gunter said. “He can run every route on the route tree. You just have to be aware and make sure you play sound football.”
Packing pressure: The moment Matthews saw the ball hit the ground, the Packers linebacker knew it was a live ball.
After hitting Manning’s arm with 8:44 left in the contest, Matthews realized the whistle hadn’t blown and immediately began scrambling toward the loose ball.
He and Julius Peppers appeared to be the only players on the field who realized it was a fumble. Although running back Paul Perkins made an attempt to pick it up, Matthews knocked it away from him to finish the strip-sack and recovery.
The Packers’ offense then proceeded to score on a 1-yard Aaron Ripkowski touchdown run to extend the lead to 38-13, finishing the game on a run of 24 unanswered points.
“That’s why I was pointing at it and letting people know it’s a live ball,” Matthews said. “I hit the guy and got the ball back. I was half-expecting maybe a penalty and fortunately the refs got it right on that one and we were able to take the ball back and score.”
Peppers fashioned one of his best games of the season in recording three tackles, two quarterback hits, two pass deflections and a third-down sack in the second quarter.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to dig down deep, be accountable for the role that you have on the team, and I thought that was a timely play that I came up with,” Peppers said. “So yeah, I thought that was a big shift in momentum.”
Staying in position: When the Packers’ offense was struggling to fire in first quarter, punter Jake Schum knew it was up to him to help Green Bay stay in prime field position.
Five of Schum’s six punts came on the Packers’ first five possessions. He averaged 41.8 yards on the night with a 41.2 net and three inside the 20-yard line.
Schum’s punts – and gunner Jeff Janis’ two tackles – helped swing the field-position battle in Green Bay’s favor. The Packers’ average drive started at their 36 compared to New York’s 25.
“Our guys did an awesome job getting down there and covering the punts,” Schum said. “I felt like I was hitting the ball pretty well in pregame and took it through the game.”
Injury front: Receiver Jordy Nelson (ribs) and linebacker Blake Martinez (knee) were the only injuries the Packers announced following Sunday’s game.
Running back Ty Montgomery left momentarily with a lower-body injury, but returned in the fourth quarter. He finished the game with 68 yards on 14 touches, including a 34-yard reception on third-and-10 on the series that ended with Randall Cobb’s 16-yard touchdown catch.
“I went back into the game. I felt fine,” Montgomery said. “I got an inside run, got some good push, good finish to the run. I feel fine.”
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