GREEN BAY - Don’t call him a linebacker, but Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett continues getting a crash course in how to play on the defense’s second level.
Burnett is exclusively meeting with safeties in training camp, but he’s had “a couple exercises” with inside linebackers coach Scott McCurley. The exercises are conducted jointly with safeties coach Darren Perry.
“He’s still a safety,” McCurley said. “It’s just getting good guys on the field who can play, and putting them in some different roles. Morgan has still been working with that safety group, and when we’re in there he communicates great. We’re used to communicating with him at the safety level, too. That’s how it’s worked out so far.”
In camp’s opening week, the Packers are dabbling with Burnett as a nickel linebacker inside the box. The alignment provides more speed on the field for pass coverage, though it also makes the Packers smaller on defense against the run.
Burnett’s transition to potentially being more of a box defender started last season. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Burnett played more in the box in the final months, with teammate Ha Ha Clinton-Dix playing more deep safety. Burnett’s “instincts” inside the box, especially knowing which lanes to fill against the run, should fit nicely in his new role.
It’s still a significant challenge for a player listed at 209 pounds. In the box, Burnett will have to shed blocks against guards crashing downhill. He's a physical safety, but that's different than being a sturdy linebacker.
“I guess he wants to step into the box and be a big boy,” linebackers coach Winston Moss said, smiling. “… I think Morgan has taken some shots in there. It looks like he is very, very comfortable doing that. We’ll wait and see until one of those big offensive linemen get on him and not let him up, and see how he responds to that. So far, so good. He looks good. He’s really practicing well.”
It’s too early to know how much Burnett will play linebacker during the season. Right now, it’s a positional experiment. Burnett could get some in-game exposure to linebacker when the Packers play the Indianapolis Colts in their preseason opener at the Hall of Fame game Sunday. The preseason likely will determine whether the package is worth keeping around this fall.
Burnett's potential transition also accommodates what has become a deep Packers safety. The Packers are deeper on their back end than their defensive line, a young group with two rookies factoring heavily in the rotation. With Burnett at linebacker, the Packers can have safety Micah Hyde on the field behind him.
But most of Burnett's snaps will come at safety, just as they have in the past. No, don't call him a linebacker.
“He’s not a linebacker,” Perry said. “But Morgan is physical. He has a good understanding of the run game in terms of where he’s supposed to fit, in terms of taking on blockers and so forth. So that’s something we’ll have to be conscious of. He’s not a big body, but he’s physical, and he plays with a certain tenacity.
“He’s not a linebacker. So it’s still different for him.”
firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood