GREEN BAY – The landscape of NFL defenses is changing with a riptide of athletic tight ends and dynamic slot receivers ushering in a new era of playmakers.
Smaller, faster defenders are creeping into the box to combat them. The lines between positions have blurred with players once categorized as defensive backs now stepping into hybrid roles.
Morgan Burnett has epitomized this phenomena in Green Bay. The Packers’ veteran safety had a career year in 2016, playing everywhere from boundary and slot cornerback to inside linebacker.
As excited as the Packers are about maximizing the flexibility of Burnett and incoming rookie Josh Jones, the traditional linebacker isn’t going anywhere, either.
In fact, the Packers are as deep and full of options at the position as they’ve been in the last six years with Jake Ryan, Blake Martinez, Joe Thomas and Jordan Tripp all returning.
“I think that where we are right now compared to this time last year – you’re talking about Blake Martinez has a year under his belt,” said defensive coordinator Dom Capers of last year’s fourth-round pick. “Blake continues to make progress. Jake Ryan has played in there. Obviously, Joe has played a lot for us. Jordan Tripp is doing a nice job inside.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good mixture of guys there and more experience than what we’ve had.”
Ryan, Thomas and Martinez combined to play more than 1,600 snaps a year ago, finishing third, fourth and six, respectively, in total tackles in what was the NFL’s eighth-ranked run defense.
The Packers opened the year with Ryan and Martinez playing on early downs, and Thomas again playing the dime linebacker role until midseason injuries – Ryan and Martinez missed five combined games – opened the door for the former undrafted free agent to seize an every-down opportunity.
Thomas, who wound up leading all Packers linebackers with 632 snaps in 2016, has been the most common partner with Burnett in the Packers’ hybrid “Nitro” nickel package in camp, but he snagged an interception while working next to Jones in the Packers’ 24-9 win over Philadelphia last Thursday.
After stepping in front of a Matt McGloin pass across the middle, the 6-foot-1, 227-pound linebacker’s 30-yard return was one of four turnovers the Packers forced in a 24-9 win over Philadelphia in last Thursday’s preseason opener.
“Experience plays a big part in this game,” Thomas said. “I’ve been in a lot of situations and the game starts to slow down for you and I think it’s slowed down for me at this point in my career. It was a really simple read for me and I went over the top.”
Thomas’ interception started a chain reaction of plays by the defense and its inside linebackers. Near the end of the half, Martinez forced a fumble by Eagles tight end Billy Brown.
Tripp, who signed with Green Bay last December, jumped into the playmaking role when he intercepted a pass intended for receiver Trevor Davis during Tuesday’s practice at Nitschke Field.
Assistant linebackers coach Scott McCurley and the inside linebackers understand how defenses are changing but believe the position still has a lot to offer on both defense and special teams.
Ryan, Thomas, Martinez and Tripp all play on several first-team units for special-teams coordinator Ron Zook. They also rotated in at linebacker against the Eagles, with all four playing at least 19 defensive snaps.
It’s still imperative for teams to boast two linebackers in their base and nickel packages to deter teams from routinely checking to run calls.
At the same time, Martinez recently acknowledged it’s up to today’s inside linebackers to prove they’re capable of playing on all three downs. How do you do that? Make plays.
“I think it’s more of another challenge, and I think if you’re in this business you’ve got to be able to take chances and be able to rise up to the occasion,” Martinez said. “You see the shift that’s happening in the NFL. Are you going to be willing to work towards (overcoming) it and be that guy that can go out and do all those things that they’re starting to ask of you? Or not? And if you’re not, you’re not going to be here long.”
Head Coach Mike McCarthy often lauds inside linebackers for being the defense’s key communicators. That’s still the way Martinez, Thomas and the rest of the unit approach the jobs.
The competition for roster spots and playing time will continue to ramp up in the coming weeks. When a linebacker is summoned, however, the Packers have confidence that player is ready to rise to the challenge regardless of whether he’s lining up next to another linebacker or a hybrid teammate.
“I like the way they’ve responded and handled it,” McCurley said. “We’re trying to keep it within our room to compete with ourselves and try to be as multiple as we can working in different personnel groupings, and keep everybody ready to go in different situations.”