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Overlooked players have helped Packers' secondary shine during win streak

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — In the Green Bay Packers’ Week 1 victory over the Chicago Bears, Jaire Alexander and Rasul Douglas started at cornerback and Darnell Savage and Rudy Ford started at safety.

That secondary has been picked apart, although not by opposing quarterbacks.

Alexander has missed seven games, including the last four with a shoulder injury. Douglas was traded to the Buffalo Bills at the deadline. Savage returned last week after missing five games with a calf injury. Ford was inactive for three games in a four-game stretch.

Nonetheless, the Packers (6-6) are on a three-game winning streak heading into Monday night’s game at the New York Giants.

In place of those Week 1 starters? At cornerback, it’s Carrington Valentine and Corey Ballentine. Valentine, a seventh-round draft pick, leads the group with eight starts and seven passes defensed. Ballentine didn’t play a defensive snap for about two seasons but has started four games. At safety, Jonathan Owens, a low-cost addition in free agency, has started the last six.

That makeshift secondary has played a huge role in helping the Packers rank ninth in points allowed entering Week 14.

While defensive coordinator Joe Barry is hopeful that Alexander, in particular, will be back in the lineup, his approach that there are “starters and starters-in-waiting” has paid dividends.

“We coach the heck out of whoever’s healthy and ready to go and, hopefully, those guys that do play continue to take advantage of their opportunities,” Barry said.

Ballentine and Owens were unsung standouts as Green Bay beat Justin Herbert and the Chargers, Jared Goff and the Lions and Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs the last three weeks.

Ballentine was a sixth-round pick by the Giants in 2019. He started two games for them as a rookie and two more in 2020. From there, he bounced around to the Jets, Lions, Falcons and Cardinals before signing with Green Bay’s practice squad early last season. Ballentine lost out to Valentine for a roster spot in training camp but has played in nine games and broken up four passes.

How has this unsung group held things together?

“I feel like initially we were losing close games and it was more so because of execution,” Ballentine said. “We were practicing hard, we were doing everything we needed to do in practice, but I feel like when it came to the game, it was things like penalties that were throwing us off, or small mental errors here or there, or a missed cue here or there, or we didn’t see this quite fast enough or whatever. I feel like as time has went on, we’ve kind of meshed a little better.”

Owens' career has also followed a bumpy path. Like Ballentine, he played in Division II — Washburn for Ballentine and Missouri Western for Owens, who went undrafted in 2018. Owens suffered a torn ACL during offseason workouts with the Cardinals. He spent most of 2019, 2020 and 2021 on the Texans’ practice squad before starting all 17 games for Houston in 2022.

Owens, who is married to Olympic champion gymnast Simone Biles, got his opportunity this season because of injuries. With intelligence and physicality, he’s stayed in the lineup.

“We just focus on the process, the day to day,” he said. “Doing our job, knowing our scheme, knowing where we’re supposed to be. Everything else takes care of itself. I think it’s a tribute to the work that we put in when people don’t see it. That’s one thing I would say: The way we go about preparing for our matchups, it allows us to play fast because we know exactly what we’re supposed to do and where we’re supposed to be.”

NOTES: LG Elgton Jenkins (shoulder), LB Quay Walker (shoulder) and WR Christian Watson (hamstring) did not practice Friday. “Just being cautious” with Jenkins, coach Matt LaFleur said. ... RB Aaron Jones, who missed the last two games with a knee injury, was limited in practice for a second consecutive day. “As long as everything’s fine, I’m stable and I can go out there and take a hit and I’m able to get up to a decent amount of speed, I can play through pain and things like that,” Jones said. ... If Jones can’t play, Kenyan Drake, who was signed to the practice squad this week, “absolutely” could be an option, LaFleur said. “He’s played enough ball, he’s been around enough ball.”

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The Associated Press