Burnett good as gold as hybrid linebacker

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers' Morgan Burnett runs back an interception during the second quarter.

The Green Bay Packers host the Seattle Seahawks Sunday, December 11, 2016, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

GREEN BAY - From city to city and coach to coach, the primary function of training camp is to prepare for the upcoming NFL season. The core elements remain the same — from scheme installations to situational work to cross training for the sake of depth — as faces behind the facemasks often change.

Beneath these primary goals, though, lurks a secondary endeavor the components of which might never see the light of day. Each year, teams across the league spend a portion of training camp experimenting with fresh ideas.

The Green Bay Packers are no different, and six months ago defensive coordinator Dom Capers peeled back the curtain on a hybrid formation that shifted Morgan Burnett, one of the team’s starting safeties, to a spot on the field reserved for inside linebackers. It blurred the lines of nickel and dime as Burnett did the same for his positional identification.

“I just treat it as a way of me doing whatever is asked of me,” Burnett said. “I don’t see it as any pros or cons. I just feel like that’s my job description. Whatever you ask me to do, I’m here to do a job. And I have to find a way to get the job done by any means.”

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While many of these experiments die off — remember the disastrous “Quad” defense of 2014, in which Capers toyed with a 4-3 scheme — the idea of Burnett as a pseudo linebacker lingered into the regular season, and the Packers turned to it when they sought a brief change of pace. The alignment can be thought of as either a nickel formation with Burnett at linebacker or a dime formation invoking an extra safety.

For what it’s worth, Burnett prefers the latter.

Still, what began as a training camp trial evolved into the defensive norm as injuries depleted the linebacker ranks ahead of Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks. Burnett vacated his traditional safety spot to spend almost the entire game at nickel linebacker, where he played alongside Joe Thomas. Together they anchored the middle of the field in what finished as a dominant 38-10 victory for the Packers.

“We’ve had that in as a changeup,” outside linebacker Clay Matthews said, “but the fact that he can come in there and there’s no drop off from a guy who, you know, isn’t an inside linebacker, I think that speaks volumes to kind of what he brings to this defense and kind of how valuable he is.”

Matthews was among the ranks of the injured. An outside linebacker by trade, he shifted inside three weeks ago against the Philadelphia Eagles after starters Blake Martinez (knee) and Jake Ryan (ankle) went down in preceding weeks. But Matthews suffered a shoulder injury in his very first appearance and has been seriously limited ever since.

Burnett was, as Matthews put it, “our next guy up” at the position.

“He’s a great football player,” Martinez said. “He’s able to kind of be that guy that can range and go around the field and make plays.”

Though Ryan was healthy enough to play — he took the field for the first few snaps — Capers quickly replaced him with Burnett, whose job it was to shadow Jimmy Graham, the explosive tight end for Seattle. Burnett’s speed, the coaches presumed, offered a better antidote than what Ryan would have offered.

The decision paid dividends for most of the evening. Burnett, whose seven tackles were tied for second on the defense, flashed keen anticipation when he undercut Graham’s crossing route in the second quarter. He sliced in front of the stumbling tight end for an easy interception, the first of five the Packers would snag off quarterback Russell Wilson.

Among tight ends, Graham entered Sunday fifth in the league in receptions (57), third in yards (769) and tied for third in touchdowns (5). He left Lambeau Field with one catch for 16 yards.

“It was just man-to-man coverage,” Burnett said. “I kind of felt what route he was about to do, so I just went on and undercut it. (Safeties coach Darren Perry) always tells us, ‘If you’re going to undercut a route, you better make sure you get your hands on the ball.’ So I was able to get my hands on it and come away with the pick.”

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With Graham neutralized by Burnett, the Packers asked Thomas to shadow Wilson, who averages better than 34 rushing yards per game over the course of his career. Thomas, according to Burnett, had the “tough job” of tracking Wilson wherever and whenever he decided to run.

On a day when Capers could do no wrong, this decision was another gem. Wilson, who battled injuries earlier in the year but is finally healthy, scrambled just four times for 19 yards and Thomas, who led the Packers with 10 tackles, was there to bring him down exactly 50 percent of the time.

“I understood the challenge coming in because you watch film and when he gets outside the pocket, he’s dangerous," Thomas said." He makes plays with his feet. I just tried to stay connected to him.”

As Thomas and Burnett share widespread praise, the safety-turned-linebacker donned a Packers jersey adorned with number 92 — the late Reggie White.

Perhaps Burnett will line up along the defensive line next week.

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