Burnett blossoms in nickel-and-dime ILB role
No Green Bay Packers player’s role has been more altered by Sam Shields’ season-ending concussion in the regular-season opener than Morgan Burnett's.
Against Jacksonville, defensive coordinator Dom Capers showed that one of Burnett’s roles this season was going to be moving from deep safety to near the line of scrimmage with some regularity. There he could help in run defense and be an occasional blitzer.
Shields’ concussion, and subsequent groin injuries to starting cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, changed all that. With young or less-talented players thereafter filling two and sometimes the top three cornerback spots, Capers had to play more two-deep safeties to protect against big plays.
But in recent weeks, Capers has found a way to get Burnett back near the line of scrimmage more often. He has been using Burnett as an inside linebacker in what might be called a small-nickel defense. You also could call him a dime cornerback if you’d like — when he’s in this role, he’s one of six defensive backs on the field, which is the strict definition of the dime, and the front four is often the rushers Capers uses in his dime.
But while playing that role Sunday, Burnett almost always lined up in the middle of the field as a second inside linebacker, instead of in the slot as a true dime cornerback. On a couple of plays the TV video even showed quarterback Brock Osweiler pointing him out as the Mike linebacker.
And with that as a regular part of his day Sunday, Burnett had one of his best games of the season in the Packers’ 21-13 win over Houston during a game-long snowstorm at Lambeau Field.
Burnett led the Packers in tackles Sunday with nine, but that’s not the measure of why he had a good game. His 35-yard return of a fumble in the first quarter was a part of it also, though it should be noted he was at linebacker on that play, too.
What stood out more were a couple of other plays on third downs.
On one, a third-and-4 in the first quarter, Burnett lined up at middle linebacker in the nickel. He and Joe Thomas, the other inside linebacker, blitzed up the middle. Burnett shot through a gap before center Greg Mancz could get a hand on him, and with Burnett in his face, Osweiler unloaded the ball early and way off target for an incompletion. That ended the drive.
And on the other, early in the second quarter on a third-and-five, Burnett played zone coverage at linebacker, quickly got after tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz on a short throw over the middle and immediately dropped him a yard short of a first down.
The downside of playing Burnett as a linebacker showed early in the third quarter, when he was blocked more easily than a linebacker on running back Jonathan Grimes’ five-yard run up the middle in the red zone. But overall, Capers has found a way to get him closer to the line of scrimmage for a defense that’s scrapping for any kind of playmaking it can get.
The job gets much tougher for Capers, though, this week against Seattle. The Seahawks have one of the game’s most talented tight ends in Jimmy Graham (57 receptions, 13.5-yard average), plus a solid receiving corps (Doug Baldwin, Jermain Kearse) and a quarterback in Russell Wilson who can deliver the ball. Matching up with Graham will be a major challenge, and Burnett might have to play a prominent role there.
Christine Michael’s stats Sunday (nine carries for 19 yards) aren’t going to impress anybody, but it’s pretty clear he’s the best running back on the Packers’ roster with Eddie Lacy out for the season.
The problem is, he’s only been with the team three weeks, and the Packers might not be able to get him in anything close to a full-time role because they don’t have much time to teach him the bulk of the offense.
Michael definitely has physical talent. He runs with some power and body lean when he has to, and it seems like his vision is OK. He also is a natural for the Packers’ zone scheme because he runs with short choppy steps until he sees his lane, and then has the ability to plant his foot and go. Not all backs can do that. For instance, though Ty Montgomery is proving valuable as a receiver/running back, he’s a longer strider than Michael.
Michael had runs early in the second quarter of seven and five yards. His stats took a beating in the Packers’ final possession while trying to kill the clock when he had three carries for a net of zero yards. But on those early runs, he looked better and more decisive in the Packers’ zone scheme than 30-year-old James Starks.
Coach Mike McCarthy has to try whatever he can to get Michael the ball more. But it’s unclear whether he’ll have the time to do it, because it’s hard to put a back out there who doesn’t know what to do when quarterback Aaron Rodgers changes a run to a pass, and he has to pick up a defensive end or a blitzer.
» Gunter appears to be well built for conditions like Sunday’s snowy weather and slick field. The second-year cornerback can have trouble staying with fast receivers downfield, but his game is playing the short out patterns and passes over the middle because he can body up and use his size (6-2) and long arms to tip the ball away. He had two passes defended and a forced fumble against the Texans.
» Randall, in his second game back from groin surgery, was the main culprit on DeAndre Hopkins’ 44-yard touchdown pass in the game’s final minutes. Randall had outside zone coverage with deep help from safety Micah Hyde, but Randall didn’t get quite deep enough on his drop, which allowed Hopkins to catch a nice strike from Osweiler along the sideline between the two defensive backs, then cut in and take the ball to the end zone. The rule of thumb in that coverage is drop until you find work. Randall should have been a couple yards deeper when the ball was thrown because no one showed up in front of him, and that would have put him in position to play the ball or at minimum tackle Hopkins just inside the 20.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1