'Nitro' package brings explosive element to Packers' defense
GREEN BAY – The acclaim reached Kentrell Brice’s ears before he even stepped onto the practice field this offseason, but it wasn’t for him. This was locker room gossip, the kind that comes along each spring, as rookies infiltrate the roster.
Coaches raved about the new second-round safety, Brice said. Teammates, too. Watch the college film? See that big hit? Over and over, Brice remembers, he heard Josh Jones’ name as the Green Bay Packers prepared for organized team activities.
“He’s a great player,” Brice said. “I just heard vigorously throughout the coaches and the team, he’s similar to me. He likes to hit and things like that. He’s bigger than me, though. That brings a different aspect to it.”
Atop the depth chart, the safety position is among the Packers' clearest strengths entering 2017, a result of general manager Ted Thompson building the position over years.
Already, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix appears to have taken another step in his development, quicker and more disruptive on the back end, which is saying something since the second-team All-Pro was pretty good last season. Morgan Burnett might be in the sweet spot of his career: a savvy veteran who at age 28 is young enough to still be in his physical prime.
It’s the group’s depth that could transform the Packers' defense. Brice’s emergence to the first team allows Burnett to drop down to inside linebacker, where he played even in their 3-4 base defense for a stretch during Tuesday’s team reps. Jones has justified the acclaim so far, flashing the same eye-popping plays that showed on his college film with big hits and an interception Monday against backup quarterback Brett Hundley.
Even Marwin Evans, who will contribute on special teams, is a luxury many teams don’t have, a No. 5 safety who wouldn’t send the Packers into a panic if he needed to play defensive snaps as an injury replacement this fall.
“I think our safety group,” McCarthy said, “is as fine a group that I've seen in my 20-plus years in this league.”
By a large margin, it should be the Packers' best safety group under Thompson, whose tenure began in 2005. Burnett and Clinton-Dix are two of the top three safeties Thompson has drafted for the Packers, ranking behind only three-time All-Pro Nick Collins.
Burnett, especially, brings rare versatility. He’s the only Packers safety taking snaps at free safety, strong safety, inside linebacker and slot corner. His ability to play multiple positions opened perhaps the Packers' most impactful position battle in camp, and certainly its most unusual.
Position battles usually are waged within the same position. The competition between Brice and Jones is unfolding at two: strong safety and inside linebacker.
“I think you can tell there’s depth there,” receiver Jordy Nelson said, “because they’re able to move some of those guys down into the box and bring different personnel onto the field to match up with different things this league is able to present now. If it’s a small, regular personnel, or base personnel or big nickel. It just gets more speed on the field, more athleticism on the field, but also with Morgan and Jones in the box, those aren’t two small guys either.
“I think you can tell by what they’re trying to do there’s depth there, because they’re trying to get them on the field as much as possible because they’re playmakers.”
Brice heard right this spring. Jones is a similar player, only bigger. At 220 pounds – 20 pounds heavier than Brice – the rookie has enough bulk to handle extensive snaps in the box. Yet for all the plays Jones made since the start of OTAs, and all the teammates he has impressed, his reps remain on the second team because Brice is with the starters at safety.
Whenever either is on the field, it’s usually noticeable. Brice and Jones are quickly becoming two of the hardest hitters on defense. Since the pads came on Saturday, both have instigated skirmishes taking an extra shot on a receiver.
“It brings an intimidation factor for the offense,” Brice said. “Not many people just want to run across the middle and get hit. It’s not something you want to happen to you."
The Packers have used their three-safety “nitro” package extensively in camp, exploring ways to get more players from their best defensive position on the field.
McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers will have to decide whether they like the combination of Burnett at inside linebacker and Brice at safety, or Jones at inside linebacker and Burnett at safety. Both alignments have been used in camp, but the early preference has been the Burnett-Brice combination.
Whichever player wins their job – Brice at safety, Jones at linebacker – will determine where Burnett gets most of his snaps.
“It’s early in the year right now,” Burnett said. “So we don’t quite know exactly where we’re going to be. It’s just all about, you’ve got to understand multiple positions. That’s just for all of us really on the back end. You have to understand the different techniques.
“Whatever is asked of me from the defense, I’m going to learn and go out and do it to the best of my ability, and try to be accountable.”
So far, the “nitro” package hasn’t opened the door to using four safeties on the field. Through camp’s first week, Burnett, Brice and Jones have not shared a team rep.
It remains to be seen whether the Packers will use four safeties, but McCarthy said Tuesday he doesn’t foresee a problem getting all his playmakers enough snaps.
“I think all those guys will have opportunities,” McCarthy said.