Packers elevate importance of safeties
GREEN BAY - When Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy was an assistant under Marty Schottenheimer with the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1990s, he often heard him talk about the primary positions around which to build a team.
Schottenheimer felt everything started with the quarterback, left tackle, pass rushers and cornerbacks. But McCarthy has added more positions since arriving in Green Bay.
“My personal belief is that the tight end position on offense and the safety position on defense has now gone into that level of importance,” McCarthy said. “If you look at the rule changes, you look at the matchups, you look at the body types, the league has opened up the middle of the field.
“So I think everybody’s conscious of that and from a personnel acquisition standpoint, it’s something that you see the trend. It’s been going on and the importance of attacking the middle of the field with big athletic football players. With that you’ve got to have people who can defend it. We’re very fortunate to have the safety group we have.”
The Packers still are searching for a consistent tight end, but there are no such questions about a safety group highlighted by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett. McCarthy said last month the two are among the best safeties in the NFL.
Both have shown they can do almost anything. Cover and play the middle of the field. Excel in zone or in the box while also being sure tacklers.
There are several dynamic safety duos in the NFL, including the Seattle Seahawks’ Pro Bowl tandem of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
Clinton-Dix and Burnett enter 2016 hoping to prove they might be the best. Burnett said it’s the ultimate goal, but that it might take some time. Clinton-Dix said both want to be recognized as top players at the position.
But neither has any interest in making proclamations. Talking is the easy part and means nothing. Nobody cares about what is said in June. They only care what happens come September.
“I mean, we appreciate coach saying that,” Burnett said of McCarthy’s comments. “But I feel me and Ha Ha have the confidence that we come in and work every day and we push each other. We work hard in the weight room, the film room, on the practice field. We know that when we go out on Sundays or Thursdays or whenever we play, we are prepared and we know we are going to hold each other accountable to being prepared.
“You go around all 32 locker rooms, everyone is saying they can be really good. Which is true, but it’s just about going out and proving it.”
Clinton-Dix doesn’t enjoy talking about himself. So, it’s not surprising he isn’t going to make any bold statements about this tandem’s place among the NFL’s elite.
“We do the best we can on the back end,” Clinton-Dix said. “We hold each other accountable at all times. If he sees something or I see something, we can direct each other or help each other out. We do the best we can to help this team win and have fun doing it.”
Burnett, 27, remains the leader of the entire secondary. It’s just about staying healthy.
He dealt with calf issues last season for a second straight year, which forced him to miss five of the first six games. He still finished with 68 total tackles, which included 20 solos in the last three games.
He also had two forced fumbles and only seven missed tackles in the regular season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Everyone knew what to expect from Burnett once he got on the field.
It was Clinton-Dix who elevated his game during his sophomore season. He played all but three snaps in 2015, leading the defense with 100 total tackles to go with three sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble. He also intercepted a pass from Carson Palmer in the Packers’ loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the divisional playoffs.
Clinton-Dix only started playing safety as a junior in high school after converting from running back. He enjoyed watching Sean Taylor and John Lynch play the position because of the big hits they put on people.
But things have changed a bit since that time.
“When I thought about safety back then, that’s what I thought about,” Clinton-Dix said. “Just a big hitter and someone that wasn’t afraid to come downhill and knock somebody out.
“But it’s a different league. A different ballgame. You have got to be able to cover them. Third receivers, not just talking tight ends. Running backs. It’s getting your gaps, shoot your gaps. It’s a lot that safeties have to do.”
Clinton-Dix, 23, didn’t like seeing Burnett in street clothes early last season, but it did force him to put more responsibilities on his shoulders.
Now in his third year, the former first-round pick wants to focus on being more vocal. He doesn’t want to be afraid to step up and say things and get his teammates going.
Clinton-Dix knows he has a good mentor alongside him, and that together they can do some special things.
“Morgan is like my brother,” Clinton-Dix said. “It’s both of us back there together on the back end. So if one of us makes a mistake, both of us made that mistake. Whether it was just me or him.
“Having Morgan back there is all the confidence I really need. It’s a guy I can depend on at all times. Even when I make mistakes, he is going to back me up. I need him a lot.”
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IF YOU GO
What: Packers' final open OTA (weather permitting).
When: 11:30 a.m. Monday.
Where: Ray Nitschke Field.
Note: The session will be moved inside the Don Hutson Center and closed to the public in the event of inclement weather.