The Green Bay Packers might have just solved their chronic shortcomings at inside linebacker.
The reason is Morgan Burnett. Once a safety, now a hybrid.
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers had dabbled with using Burnett at linebacker back in training camp only to shelve it early in the season because of a banged-up secondary.
More recently, though, at the start of the stretch run of a long and trying season, circumstances have forced — or maybe allowed — Capers to go back to it, and this time to go all in. This hasn’t been just a wrinkle in the Packers’ defense. For the past two weeks, Burnett has been an inside linebacker.
And voila! It’s worked.
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Suddenly, a position that has been the Packers’ weakest for several years looks fine. Burnett is proving he can play inside linebacker in today’s NFL, and that the Packers can field a viable corps at that position by mixing and matching him and the hands already on deck.
That’s the way the league is going anyway. More and more teams are moving a safety to linebacker to better match up with the speed and athletic ability that offenses are flooding the field with in the passing game. It means conceding something in run defense, and it isn’t for all circumstances or every opponent. But it’s the way the NFL is evolving.
Arizona has been starting a safety at linebacker for a couple years with former first-round pick Deone Bucannon. Same for the Los Angeles Rams with former first-rounder Mark Barron. This year Washington drafted Su’a Cravens in the second round to play a similar role.
Even Seattle’s use of Kam Chancellor the past several years skews toward that trend. Though he’s still a safety, Chancellor almost always lines up as an extra linebacker, the difference being there's only a single safety deep. But he's still a glorified linebacker. And just this year Atlanta, whose coach (Dan Quinn) used to run the Seahawks’ defense, spent a first-round pick on Keanu Neal to play the same role in its defense.
What we don’t know now is the degree to which the Packers will embrace this for the long run, though the evidence is quickly building that they should go with it. Think of Burnett as the defensive equivalent of Ty Montgomery.
The Packers have been shorthanded at linebacker most of the season, but Capers didn’t act earlier because he wanted Burnett back at safety to help a defense that had been wiped out at cornerback. Not until the last two weeks, with Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins finally healthy and in game shape at cornerback, did Capers feel free to play Burnett mainly at linebacker.
In those two games, the Packers allowed Houston 13 points and Seattle only 10. Granted, the Texans were quarterback-challenged and playing in tough conditions (a game-long snow) at Lambeau Field. But the Seahawks had a healthy Russell Wilson and several weapons in the passing game.
They presented a real test that Burnett passed. He played a big role in shutting down one of the game’s most talented tight ends, Jimmy Graham (one reception for 16 yards). Pro Football Focus gave him the team’s second-highest grade for the day.
This is no small thing. The Packers’ have been undermanned at inside linebacker for several years now, and general manager Ted Thompson has resisted using prime resources at that position. So he has tried to get by with fourth-round picks (Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez) the last two years.
Now, though, if he and the Packers’ coaching staff are convinced that Burnett can play a lot of snaps at inside linebacker going forward, they’ll no longer have a dire need to get more athletic there.
It’s not that they can play Burnett at linebacker all the time. Against the best running teams, and in given circumstances in any game, it won't work. Burnett at 209 pounds will get steamrolled.
But the Packers can mix and match. So against teams that run well — 2016 opponents Dallas, Tennessee and Minnesota immediately come to mind — Burnett would play mostly safety. Same for obvious running downs and against run-oriented personnel regardless of opponent. Ryan, Martinez (when healthy) and Joe Thomas could share the inside linebacker duties in those instances. Ryan and Martinez play the run about equally; Thomas is more coverage-oriented.
Even this week against Chicago, there’s a good case that Burnett should go back to safety to get bigger linebackers on the field. Halfback Jordan Howard is the focal point of the Bears’ offense with third-stringer Matt Barkley at quarterback.
But against many teams, Burnett can play half the game or more at linebacker and pair up with any of the remaining three. It’s not only the Packers’ best alternative, it’s a good one.
Just look to last Sunday. Seattle has one of the NFL’s best linebacker pairs in Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. The Seahawks, who rank No. 3 in the NFL in scoring defense, think so highly of their coverage skills that they leave both on the field no matter the down and distance. Yet, the Packers exploited the 246-pound Wright when he matched against a receiver. Randall Cobb had a 25-yard catch and run on him on a crossing route; Ty Montgomery a 24-yarder; and Jordy Nelson beat him on a crossing pattern from the slot for an easy nine-yard touchdown.
As good as Wright is in coverage, he can’t cover like a safety. And the Packers have the depth at safety to move Burnett back and forth as needed. Micah Hyde is their first option, and though he’ll be a free agent in the offseason, the Packers can re-sign him. Undrafted rookie Kentrell Brice might have the talent to be a starter down the road as well.
So via some offseason planning and in-season serendipity, the Packers have found something new that works. A defensive package that looked like a wrinkle in training camp could be a staple for the rest of the season and beyond.