Burnett's return should boost defense
Well, at least one team should have its full complement of safeties on Sunday night at Lambeau Field.
The Green Bay Packers upgraded starting strong safety Morgan Burnett to probable on Saturday afternoon. He was initially listed as questionable during Friday’s injury designations with the calf strain that kept him out of last Sunday’s opener in Chicago and limited him in practice this week.
That makes it a near-certainty the 6-foot-1, 209-pound safety will be back on the field for Sunday night's showdown with the Seattle Seahawks. Only one of 59 players the Packers listed as probable in 2014 didn’t play — defensive lineman Bruce Gaston (illness), who had just been signed from Arizona.
The Packers need Burnett, too. The defense has allowed 899 yards in the pair of games the sixth-year safety has missed the past two seasons, and everyone is in agreement the secondary is better off with Burnett quarterbacking the defense. His responsibility grew earlier this week when inside linebacker Sam Barrington was lost for the season with a foot and ankle injury.
“Obviously, it’s a lift,” safeties coach Darren Perry said of Burnett's return. “He’s one of our better players. Any time you can get a guy back of his caliber, that’s going to help you defensively, communication. I think there’s a level of comfort with him. He and Ha (Ha Clinton-Dix) have a pretty good rapport with one another. Just his presence and getting him back, hopefully that will kind of make things a little bit more situated on the back end.”
Burnett’s injury led to some musical chairs for the defense against Chicago. It forced nickel cornerback Micah Hyde to the back end and pushed Clinton-Dix down into the box where the second-year safety had a couple missed tackles, including one on Jay Cutler’s 12-yard scramble on third-and-5 in the second quarter.
The Packers like their chances when Burnett and Clinton-Dix are working in tandem. Together, they had their best performance of the year against Seattle in January’s NFC title game.
The duo combined for 15 tackles, three interceptions, two sacks and a fumble recovery in the 28-22 overtime loss, which now is remembered more for Burnett’s fourth-quarter slide in lieu of an interception return and Clinton-Dix misplaying a two-point conversion.
The Seahawks again will be without all-pro safety Kam Chancellor, who continues his holdout. Seattle likely will deploy 2014 undrafted free agent Dion Bailey next to its other All-Pro on the back end, Earl Thomas.
Expect Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to target Bailey early and often as St. Louis did in its 34-31 overtime win over the Seahawks in Week 1.
Back to Barclay
For the third time in four seasons, expect the Packers to turn to Don Barclay to stem the tide at right tackle with Bryan Bulaga out for about a month after tearing the meniscus in his left knee during practice Thursday.
Barclay, 26, started 21 games including playoffs during his first two NFL seasons when Bulaga was sidelined with a season-ending hip injury and a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Barclay was again slated to fill the swing tackle role in 2014 before tearing his own ACL early in training camp.
An undrafted free agent in 2012, the 6-foot-4, 305-pound offensive lineman has taken reps at every position on the offensive line. He shook off a slow start to camp with a pair of commendable performances in the final two weeks of the preseason, filling in for starting left tackle David Bakhtiari.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy wouldn’t go as far as to name Barclay the replacement Friday, but he’s the only proven option. Lane Taylor plays strictly guard, JC Tretter seems best suited for the interior and first-year lineman Josh Walker only recently started playing tackle on a regular basis.
Starting left guard Josh Sitton said Friday that knowing Bulaga, he’ll be back sooner than expected. In the interim, Barclay’s workmanlike approach should get him the nod one year removed from reconstructive knee surgery.
Offensive line coach James Campen never tore his ACL, but watched Bulaga and Mark Tauscher battle back from it. He believes an acclimation period of about six weeks is necessary and sees Barclay ahead of schedule.
“There’s a time period there,” Campen said. “In our minds and even mine, too, ‘Gee, it’s been since last year training camp. The thing should be well.’ And it is well but there comes a point where things start locking in again and he did after a couple of ball games and he’s improved ever since then. He beat Mark by three weeks. I remember Mark saying when all of a sudden, boom, it started happening for him at practice. ‘Yeah, I’m starting to feel like I can bend and move and do the things that I was doing.’”
The Packers reached a six-week injury settlement this week with rookie receiver Larry Pinkard, according to an NFL source. He sprained his AC joint in their preseason finale against New Orleans.
The Packers expressed interest in retaining Pinkard before the injury. They'll be eligible to re-sign him after Week 13 due to NFL rules that don't allow teams to bring back a player with whom they reached an injury settlement with until six weeks after the settlement expires.
The recovery time associated with AC sprains varies by degree and case, but Pinkard’s situation provides a glimpse into what Randall Cobb is dealing with. The Pro Bowl receiver sustained the same injury a week earlier against Philadelphia and returned in time for the Packers’ opener against the Bears.
Cobb admitted before the game he was going to deal with some pain and didn’t have full range of motion. He played 54 of 60 offensive snaps, catching five passes for 38 yards and a touchdown.
“I don’t know what the time limit is you can put on it,” Cobb said Thursday. “I’m going to play through it as much as I can and do everything I can.”
The Packers also settled with receiver Javess Blue this week. The undrafted rookie out of Kentucky dislocated his shoulder during the team's Family Night practice on Aug. 8 and didn't return. Outside linebacker Jermauria Rasco is the only injured undrafted rookie with whom who the Packers have yet to reach a settlement.
Back in the saddle
The Packers didn’t waste a second getting James Jones mixed back into their offense.
Less than a week after his return, the 31-year-old receiver stepped right into the third receiver spot and played 54 of the offense’s 60 snaps. Backups Ty Montgomery and Jeff Janis saw only one offensive snap each.
Jones’ chemistry with quarterback Aaron Rodgers bubbled back to the surface immediately. Based on his work in practice, the coaching staff felt confident installing him into the offense for the opener. He wound up catching all four passes that came his way for 51 yards and two touchdowns.
“That’s what we expected from James," quarterbacks/wide receivers coach Alex Van Pelt said. "That’s what we saw in practice and expected that to carry over into the game and it did. James is a guy who has played a lot of football and is very knowledgeable in the system, and has a great rapport with Aaron. That’s what we expected.”
The other Randall
It’s uncertain what Burnett’s return means for Damarious Randall’s playing time, but the rookie cornerback didn’t hurt his chances for a long-term role with his play against the Bears.
Randall, Green Bay's first-round pick in April, played 61 of the defense’s 77 snaps against the Bears because of a series of events triggered by Burnett’s calf strain. The Packers replaced their starting safety by sliding nickel cornerback Micah Hyde to the back end.
Starting cornerback Casey Hayward then moved to the slot in the nickel and dime sub packages to fill Hyde’s void, leaving the perimeter open for Randall. He finished with a tackle and two pass deflections. He even matched up with Pro Bowl receiver Alshon Jeffery on a few occasions.
“I thought he showed poise,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “I guess that’s the best word I could say. It wasn’t too big for him. He showed poised. I’m excited to see how he does Sunday night against a different opponent. Can he maintain that level of composure and do it week-to-week? So we’ll see.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.