Burks' dislocated shoulder leaves Packers thin at inside linebacker

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers linebacker Oren Burks (42) attempts to tackle Tennessee Titans running back Akrum Wadley (38) in an NFL preseason game at Lambeau Field on Thursday, August 9, 2018 in Green Bay, Wis. 
Adam Wesley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

OAKLAND, Calif. -  Perhaps the fact that rookie inside linebacker Oren Burks’ injury occurred before the Green Bay Packers took on the Oakland Raiders in their third exhibition game is a good sign for them.

How badly can a guy get hurt in pre-game warm-ups?

The Packers will know more about that when they return home Saturday and are able to take a better look at Burks’ left shoulder.

According to the rookie, his shoulder “popped out”, which means he suffered a dislocation. He didn’t say much else as he exited the locker room quickly at Oakland-Alameda Coliseum late Friday night, but his status for the final exhibition game against Kansas City Thursday and, more importantly, the season opener against Chicago Sept. 9, is in doubt.

“It was out of nowhere,” inside linebacker Blake Martinez said. “All of a sudden he’s like, ‘Oh, my shoulder hurts.’ Then the next thing you know it was like 'Oh, I guess he’s not playing.'"

It would be one thing if Burks were a rookie fighting for a backup job on defense and playing time on special teams, but the Packers lost veteran Jake Ryan to a torn ACL in camp and Burks was instantly elevated to a starting position next to Martinez.

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Since Ryan went down July 30, Burks has been taking a crash course on the “Will” or weakside position in coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense. He had showed gradual improvement in two exhibition starts and was expected to play the entire first half against the Raiders.

But the Packers are down to Martinez and a group of guys with no regular-season experience for however long it takes Burks to come back. It’s possible the Packers were lucky the contact occurred during half-speed drills instead of full-speed contact, but they won’t know for sure until they see the extent of the injury.

After general manager Brian Gutekunst focused on replenishing the tight end and cornerback positions during the offseason, he’s suddenly in dire straits at inside linebacker. He could take a flyer on a free agent like NaVorro Bowman or wait until cuts are made and see if someone he likes comes free.

The alternative is doing what Pettine did against the Raiders, which was rotate undrafted rookie Greer Martini and street free agent Ahmad Thomas. Martini started and played on run downs and Thomas rotated in on passing downs.

“It was kind of in pregame when it happened so they were saying, ‘You’ll start at the Will position in base,’” Martini said. “I don’t get much reps at that position, so it was just getting in a different mindset and try to execute as much as I could.”

Martini finished with three tackles and a fumble recovery.

Thomas, who was a safety in college, mostly played in passing situations, had three tackles, including one for loss, and a nice pass break-up when the Raiders were threatening on their first possession. He also gave up a 19-yard completion to tight end Jared Cook on the same drive.

“I mean, it’s one of those things that the next guy up is the best guy up,” Martinez said. “I think the guys we got in the room right now are other guys that we need, and they’re getting the job done when they’re out there. I trust in them, and we’ll be good to go.”

Pettine has some options if he doesn’t want to go the free agent route and is worried about the two young linebackers. He could move Clay Matthews to inside linebacker where he played in 2015 when the Packers were short at the position.

Or he could use a combination of Martini, Thomas and safeties Josh Jones, Jermaine Whitehead and Quinten Rollins. The scheme already has a big safety playing inside linebacker built into it, so he could find a way to play guys based on match-ups.

Against the Raiders’ No. 1 offense, first with starter Derek Carr at quarterback and then with backup Connor Cook, the run defense was solid with Martini in the game. The Packers stuffed running back Doug Martin on back-to-back runs at the 4-yard line on Carr’s only series of the game.

Raiders running backs rushed 12 times for 46 yards in the first half with a long-run of 16 yards. Facing Martin and Chris Warren isn’t the same as taking on Marshawn Lynch, so take those statistics with a grain of salt.

The true test will come in the first two weeks of the season when the Packers face the power running attacks of the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings. If Burks isn’t back then – and it’s not like he is known for playing the run anyway – the Packers could be vulnerable.

And now they absolutely can’t lose Martinez, who besides being an all-around good player, makes all the calls and adjustments for the defense. It would be nothing short of a disaster if he were to get hurt.

For now, he said he’ll accept any extra responsibility that comes his way.

"I mean, I like the pressure,” Martinez said. “The more pressure the better. I think it’s just going to help me out that much more. I can handle that load, whatever they need me to do.”


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