New Green Bay Packers inside linebackers are playing catch-up in advance of season opener

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Aug 30, 2018; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back Damien Williams (26) runs against Green Bay Packers linebacker Antonio Morrison (48) in the first half at Arrowhead Stadium.

GREEN BAY – Antonio Morrison has been in Green Bay for 10 days.

Korey Toomer, three.

Oren Burks and James Crawford are rookies, and Burks hasn’t practiced or played since dislocating his left shoulder just before kickoff against Oakland on Aug. 24.

That leaves Blake Martinez, with 25 career starts, as the one inside linebacker for the Packers who has been through an entire offseason program under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. That means the inside linebacking group is in catch-up mode, though the acquisitions of Morrison and Toomer were strategic in that both veterans are familiar, and comfortable, with the position in 3-4 schemes.

“I’d say it’s coming well,” Morrison said. “The staff, everybody here to help. Strength staff. Coaches. Players. Any question you have, everybody here to help. It’s like everybody’s in this together. It’s not a surprise or anything like that. I’m not really concerned with anything because I know the guys around me will help me with anything.”

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It’s still a crash course in study and chemistry development, and not just within their own meeting room and huddle – Chicago is coming into Sunday night with a new offense designed and called by first-year head coach Matt Nagy.

“We’ll have a general idea of how we think they’re going to line up in some formations, particularly they’ll put people in certain formations that maybe we didn’t practice exactly,” Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. “But our concepts will be in place and I have full confidence that our players will play fast.”

That means the new linebackers – from the veterans to the rookies – have to be not just up to speed on those concepts mentally, but able to perform them just as quickly. It may seem daunting, but the group feels they’re catching up.

“It’s actually been pretty good,” Martinez said. “They’ve been taking it seriously, putting in the time to understand the playbook and know what to do. It’s awesome to see and it obviously makes it easier on me. I was pretty much used to it during the fall camp and spring OTAs because we had all rookies and then me, so it was something I got used to where it’s ‘hey, make sure you got this, get this in and help them out.’ They’ve been good.”

Burks has also noticed how quickly Toomer and Morrison have been catching up.  

“I feel like they’ve been picking things up pretty well,” Burks said. “Coach (Patrick) Graham has been doing a very good job of teaching them whatever we need to know. And for them being in the league awhile, it kind of transfers over just knowing ball. It’s just different terminology and a little bit of tweaks here and there. A lot of times guys play the same defense, it’s just different ways of playing it.”

The rookie out of Vanderbilt returned to practice Wednesday on a limited basis, but he wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s fallen behind at all with the missed time.

“Right now, just trying to get as healthy as possible with this shoulder and trying to stay mentally sharp and get as many mental reps as possible,” Burks said. “Just in the film room now, so when I’m limited physically I just try and pick up on the mental side. I’m feeling good about it and moving pretty well so hopefully, I’ll get back pretty soon. I did a little bit today and it felt pretty good so we’re just taking it one day at a time.”

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How Pettine will employ his inside linebackers on game days is yet to be determined, but the Packers will need to limit Bears running back Jordan Howard, a Pro Bowler with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Even if Burks can’t play, Morrison and Toomer arrived as sure tacklers and nose tackle Kenny Clark said he hasn’t felt or seen on film, the linebackers filling in behind him being out of position.

“Those guys that are familiar with the 3-4, Oren is catching up, they know how to play football and they know how to read blocks and they know what to expect,” Clark said. “All they gotta do is keep on studying and don’t think and play fast like they know how.”

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