GREEN BAY – Morgan Burnett isn’t one to say no to a request. If something is asked of him, the Packers safety is almost always quick and positive in his response.
So it’s not like Dom Capers needed to butter up Burnett when the Packers defensive coordinator approached the eighth-year veteran about wearing the communication helmet this year.
However, Capers did offer a little history lesson to help make the proposal a bit more relatable.
“When they first presented it to me, I didn’t know what to expect,” Burnett said. “But then (Capers) actually told me he did it before with one of his players back in the Steelers and that player happened to be Darren Perry. I was like, ‘OK, that’s pretty cool then. I think we can handle it.’”
Perry, the Packers’ safeties coach and the only position coach Burnett has known in the NFL, smiled when asked about the incident on Thursday evening.
“I think we kind of blew it up a little bit,” Perry said Thursday. “You have to convince these guys to do these things.”
While it’s true Perry helped communicate signals to Capers’ defenses in the mid-’90s, his responsibilities paled in comparison to what’s been asked of his pupil these days.
Offenses are faster and more complex. There’s no longer time for the communicator to stand in front of the defense and relay calls from the sideline like Perry did in Pittsburgh. You can thank the no-huddle for that.
The defense still has ways to combat evolving schemes. Since the league approved coach-to-defense radio headsets in 2008, teams have been permitted to designate a specific player to take in all the one-way communication and relay calls.
Historically, that individual typically had been an inside linebacker. However, an outbreak of spread offenses with dynamic playmakers in the middle of the field has led to more safeties assuming the role because most never leave the field.
A two-time playoff captain, Burnett became the logical choice for the Packers given the hybrid “safetybacker” role he plays in the nitro nickel package, which features a safety lining up in the box next to a traditional inside linebacker.
Burnett started playing more in the box last year, but he has lined up almost exclusively at either linebacker or “star” slot corner in sub-packages so far this season, with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Kentrell Brice playing together on the back end.
“He’s been around here a long time and played a number of positions on defense. He’s a good leader and communicator,” Capers said. “We’re talking about guys over the last couple years (who) have been on the field the most have been Morgan and Ha. They play in most of our personnel groups. So he’s done it the last couple weeks and we kind like the way things are going with him being the communicator.”
Count Ricky Jean Francois as one player who immediately took notice of Burnett’s leadership skills after signing with the Packers as a free agent in the spring.
A seventh-round pick by San Francisco in 2009, Jean Francois took his cues from All-Pro inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman during most of his four seasons with the 49ers. However, there were games where safety Dashon Goldson would be called upon to handle the job, shouting commands before dropping back to his natural position.
With defensive coordinators looking for ways to contain tall, athletic tight ends such as Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Martellus Bennett, Jean Francois has only seen the role of safeties increase during previous stops in Indianapolis and Washington.
That’s where players like Burnett come in. Besides what he offers on the field, Burnett also was one of the first to help Jean Francois get acclimated to the defense after he signed with the Packers.
“The leadership role, he has it. He has that skill set,” Jean Francois said. “You don’t have to put a ‘C’ on his chest. You don’t have to say he’s the captain. When you talk to him, with the energy he gives off, you know he’s a leader. When you have a guy like that, things click a lot easier.”
According to Perry, the Packers toyed with the idea of putting the headset on Burnett a few years ago before deciding to keep it on their linebackers.
With a little more experience, Burnett has proved to be a perfect fit for the job this season. He’s played a defense-high 233 of a possible 236 snaps, providing a calming influence for a defense that’s had to weather the absence of several starters.
“I think a lot of it, too, has to do with maturity, comfort level,” Perry said. “Believe it or not, we tried that a few years ago and he wasn’t quite ready to handle that. There was a lot going on and so forth. That’s typical with a lot of players. The older they get, the slower the game becomes and the more comfortable they get. They can handle those situations.”
Head Coach Mike McCarthy has lauded Burnett’s communication skills this season, which led to the veteran safety earning a game ball after a nine-tackle performance in last Thursday’s 35-14 win over Chicago.
The Packers keep tacking on more responsibilities to Burnett’s resume, but he doesn’t mind. After all, it all falls under the main job description for NFL safeties.
“The only thing different is now I have the (speaker) in my helmet,” Burnett said. “We’re kind of like the quarterbacks on the back end, so it’s our job to make sure everyone is lined up and make sure everyone has the defense communicated. The only difference is you have the speakers in your helmet, but I don’t think it’s (too) dramatic of a change because you still have to communicate.”