GREEN BAY - Rookie linebacker Oren Burks is finally cleared medically after missing the first two weeks recovering from a dislocated left shoulder.
How much he plays Sunday in Washington remains to be seen.
The Green Bay Packers drafted Burks in the third round precisely for the type of matchup that awaits in the nation’s capital. Washington running back Chris Thompson is one of the NFL’s top receivers out of the backfield, catching at least 35 passes each of the last three seasons.
After finishing 2017 with 39 catches for 510 yards and four touchdowns, Thompson ranks third in the league with 19 catches for 155 yards and one touchdown in two games this season.
“He’s a matchup challenge,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s definitely going to get the ball. They’ve established that in their offense. But just like anything, you identify the playmakers or the skill set of the personnel, you try to match it, or scheme-adjust to it.”
The tall and athletic Burks should be the Packers' top linebacker in coverage. Yet he’s also a rookie entering his first game. McCarthy said he won’t push Burks along too quickly as he returns to the field.
His involvement in the defense remains uncertain.
“Obviously, his primary role will be special teams,” McCarthy said. “We’ll see what the week brings us. But, yeah, I thought he had a really good camp. You could see him progressing through training camp. So it will be great to get him back out there.”
The Packers can afford to be patient with Burks’ return because of the flexibility they’ve shown in new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme.
Under former coordinator Dom Capers, the Packers primarily used sub-package formations consisting of five or six defensive backs with either one or two inside linebackers. With Burks inactive the past two games, the Packers have played often with seven defensive backs on the field, using a safety in the box alongside linebacker Blake Martinez.
Using seven defensive backs Sunday could match up well against Thompson, but it would leave the Packers' defense light against Washington’s other running back. Adrian Peterson, the future Hall of Famer, showed Week 1 he can still be productive even at age 33. He had 96 yards on 26 carries and one touchdown in a win against the Arizona Cardinals.
Peterson had only 20 yards on 11 carries in last week’s loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Despite 15 fewer carries in Week 2, Washington coach Jay Gruden said Peterson remains an important piece to his offense.
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“We did a poor job last week of getting him more involved in the offense,” Gruden said. “We tried to get him the ball on first and second down. We just couldn’t get him going. I think from an in-shape standpoint, I think he’s in great shape, tip-top shape. And I think he’ll be able to last. Time will tell. It's a 16-game season.
“I don't know if we'll ever see a day where he carries it 40 times, which you never know. He's in great shape. I know he wants it 40 times a game.”
The Packers held Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook to just 38 yards on 10 carries last week. The strength of their defensive line helped, but so did inside linebacker Antonio Morrison. A run stopper, Morrison got 22 snaps last week, double his play time in Week 1. The Packers prefer not to play him on passing downs.
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Cook actually had more production as a receiver than runner, catching three passes for 52 yards. On one play, Packers linebacker Korey Toomer lined up across Cook on the boundary perimeter. Cook beat Toomer with a shallow slant for 24 yards. He later had a 24-yard catch in overtime when he was uncovered out of the backfield.
Those are the plays Burks was drafted to defend. Against an offensive backfield that has Peterson and Thompson, Burks’ size and athletic ability would be ideal to match up. But before he finds a regular role, Burks will have to earn it.
“OB, hopefully, is ready to go,” Pettine said. “He’s also a rookie, so it’s not like we’re going to just throw him out there and say, ‘Hey, go play 70 plays for us.’ So I think his primary role to start will be special teams, and then we’ll see where things go with him from a defensive standpoint.”