It wasn’t the cleanest performance from the Green Bay Packers defense on Monday Night Football, but first-round pick Eric Stokes looked like a legitimate starting cornerback with a strong showing against the Detroit Lions.
After seeing limited action in Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints, Stokes logged 44 snaps on Monday night. As a rookie, Stokes was expected to be eased into a role gradually, but the struggles of veteran corner Kevin King likely put a ton of pressure on defensive coordinator Joe Barry to give the rookie a chance to prove himself.
Teams have continued to view King as a weak spot in the Packers secondary, exposing his limitations by attacking him deep downfield. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), King has given up five receptions on six targets for 133 yards and a touchdown, allowing a perfect passer rating of 158.3.
After getting torched for a 55-yard touchdown in Week 1, King gave up another explosive play on the opening drive against Detroit. Lining up in press coverage, King was immediately beat off of the receiver’s release, stumbling over himself without having an opportunity to jam his opponent. He was able to recover after the stumble, but with no pass rush coming from the defense, Jared Goff had plenty of time before finding Quintez Cephus for a 46-yard gain.
The Packers played press coverage on their first third and short.— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 22, 2021
Kevin King gets completely destroyed off a simple release, then gives up separation at the catch point by trying to flail at the ball. pic.twitter.com/pfgaKZk4XV
A complete lack of a pass rush did King no favors, but he also hurt himself by attempting to make a play on a ball he couldn’t see rather than trying to close the gap between himself and Cephus.
The Packers tried to limit King’s snaps on the outside after the play, kicking him inside to the slot while calling upon Stokes to play near the sideline. It wasn’t a seamless transition early on, with the two struggling just a few plays later with communication in the red zone.
Facing 11 personnel with their backs on the goal line, Stokes lined up outside while King moved to the slot. The Lions ran a simple slant-flat concept on the back side of the play, with Stokes and King attacking the slant, leaving Cephus all alone in the end zone for a touchdown.
Matt LaFleur noted that this was a miscommunication error based off how this play changes inside the red zone during Tuesday's presser.— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 22, 2021
Possible rookie error by Stokes? Hard to tell without knowing the call. pic.twitter.com/zhFMhNzadU
It’s virtually impossible to tell who is at fault on the play without knowing what play was called. There was even a debate in the replies to the tweet above about who was responsible for what, and Matt LaFleur didn’t make things much easier with his explanation of the play in Tuesday’s press conference. Although he explained that the responsibilities on the play call change inside the red zone, he wasn’t clear on who missed their responsibilities.
Miscommunication like that happens early in a season with a rookie cornerback and a new defensive coordinator, but those will be mistakes that have to be cleaned up for the Packers to turn things around defensively.
The Lions took advantage of that same situation in the red zone in the second quarter. Detroit drew up a player for their talented tight end T.J. Hockenson, using a rub route to create some separation for him in the back of the end zone.
After leaving Cephus alone for a touchdown in the first quarter, Stokes was a bit more cautious this time around. He was able to recognize the play developing in front of him, but was a tick too slow to make a play on the ball, with De’Vondre Campbell unable to recover from the rub to break up the pass.
Another red zone rub concept from the Lions.— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 22, 2021
Not sure if they want Stokes switching on this one to a tight end. Hard to defend a good throw/play design. pic.twitter.com/7SVesZBr55
It was a beautiful pass from Goff for the touchdown, and it’s hard to fault Stokes for not making a play. He might have had a chance to make one if he was a half-second faster in reacting, but it’s another example of not knowing what Stokes’ responsibilities are on a play like this.
The red zone communication will need to get cleaned up, especially on these crossing concepts, but Stokes did a lot on Monday night that should get Packers fans fired up about the team’s first-round pick.
The former Georgia corner did a good job of processing information post-snap in zone coverage, which is something that even veteran defensive backs can struggle with. On this play in the first half, Stokes showed good discipline understanding his assignment, passing off the deep route to his safety, picking up the next receiver in his zone, then recognizing the dump-off pass and attacking downhill to try and make a play.
Actually thought this was a solid rep from Stokes in zone coverage (bottom of screen).— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 22, 2021
Understands where his deep help is, finds the next guy in his zone, then breaks on the throw to get to the ball carrier.
Not the cleanest tackle attempt, but a solid play. pic.twitter.com/3AJZ4ABgL5
For a player who was viewed mostly as a press-man cornerback out of college, Stokes’ patience and awareness in zone coverage on this play is an encouraging sign. The tackle attempt was a bit out of control, but he was still able to make a solid play.
Easily Stokes’ best play of the game came on a crucial fourth down in the third quarter. The Lions were marching towards the red zone down 21-17 and looking to retake the lead when they faced fourth-and-1 at Green Bay’s 25-yard line.
Stokes lined up in press-man coverage, happily allowing the outside release by Cephus. He stayed in phase, and knowing that the Lions only needed a yard for the first down, quickly reacted to Cephus attempting to cut back towards the line of scrimmage. The rookie was able to stick to his man and make a play on the ball to force the turnover on downs.
Stokes with the massive 4th down stop.— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 22, 2021
Knows they're gonna try and go short. Sticks to his man, makes a play at the catch point.
PBU. Turnover on downs. pic.twitter.com/1sOCWzHP0W
It was a huge play from the rookie, and one that got outside linebacker coach Mike Smith so fired up that he smashed his face into Stokes after the stop.
One of the concerns for Stokes when evaluating his college tape at Georgia was his struggles with changing direction. His pre-draft athletic testing confirmed what the tape showed, placing in the 11th percentile of cornerbacks in the 20-yard shuttle, and the 43rd percentile in the three-cone drill.
Those concerns didn’t show up on Monday night, however. He did a great job of mirroring his receiver’s routes throughout the night, particularly on routes cutting back towards the line of scrimmage. This first-down play in the second half was a good example of that, while also showing off Stokes’ ability to punch the ball out at the point of contact.
Another nice play from Stokes. Watch him punch the ball out at the end for the PBU. pic.twitter.com/sWc5YBwamT— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 22, 2021
Despite all of the positive signs from Monday night, teams still may want to attack Stokes deep when he’s on the field. On the final defensive play of the game, Stokes was beat deep downfield, but his play speed allowed him to recover before he was able to make another solid play on the ball.
Stokes did get beat deep on the last defensive play, but I'm still impressed and his ability to stop, turn and make another play on the ball. pic.twitter.com/Ofpe6RZg1U— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 22, 2021
Monday night’s game was a true coming-out party for Stokes. It wasn’t perfect, and there were a few instances of him slipping on the field, but he’s already building off of a strong start to the season. According to PFF, Stokes has played 37 coverage snaps while only allowing a 5-yard reception on five targets with three forced incompletions.
Does this mean that Stokes is the official starter? It’s hard to tell, at least right now. King still saw snaps at outside cornerback in Green Bay’s base defense throughout the night, and despite his struggles, the team could still want a veteran presence out there on base defense while the rookie gets acclimated.
However, with what we saw from Stokes this week, it’s clear that the first-round pick is ready to taken on the challenge of being a starting cornerback in the NFL.