GREEN BAY — The package was designed to add a new wrinkle to the defense.
With more and more offenses deploying athletic tight ends, defensive coordinator Dom Capers planned to launch his counterattack by occasionally playing Morgan Burnett in a hybrid linebacker role to help defend the middle of the field.
The 6-foot-1, 209-pound safety is roughly 30 pounds lighter than a traditional inside linebacker, but he possessed the experience, athleticism and physicality to make it work.
Throughout training camp, Burnett would take a handful of reps next to the Packers’ inside linebackers during practice before moving back to his usual spot at safety.
All that preparation proved pivotal for the Packers once the regular season began. An idea originally intended to expand Burnett’s range became a necessity for a defense that endured a rash of injuries to its cornerbacks and linebackers.
Burnett, often overlooked on the back end, stepped into the spotlight as he ranged anywhere from linebacker to slot cornerback in the nickel and dime packages.
“I thought Morgan had his best year as a Green Bay Packer,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “I thought he showed a whole different level of (versatility) this year. The ability to go in there and play the nickel, dime linebacker and play any position. He is the key communicator on the back end. He keeps everything going.”
Adversity hit for Burnett and the rest of the Packers’ secondary in Jacksonville when one of his closest friends, Pro Bowl cornerback Sam Shields, sustained a season-ending concussion 62 snaps into the opener against the Jaguars.
An already young secondary was forced to adjust without its shutdown cornerback, and Burnett suddenly became the oldest player in the secondary by two calendar years and three NFL seasons.
Leadership has come naturally to Burnett, a two-time playoff captain who has started all 101 NFL games he’s played in. His only concern was on the well-being of Shields, whom he entered the league with in 2010 and considers a brother.
“I didn’t look at it as any added pressure or added responsibility,” Burnett said. “That’s part of my job responsibility as a safety. You have to be a quarterback for the defense. That’s why I decided to play safety. I don’t look at it as a burden. That’s just part of my job to get guys lined up and help bring the young guys along.”
Injuries tested Burnett and the defense all season. Of the 1,100 defensive snaps Burnett played in 18 games, a little more than a quarter of those reps came playing a position in the sub-packages.
When the Packers needed him to play cornerback, he played cornerback. He played the “whip” slot position in the dime all season, but he also shifted into the “star” cornerback in the nickel during the NFC North title game against Detroit after Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall left with injuries.
When injuries mounted at inside linebacker, Burnett played extensively at the position without complaint. He made his first career start there in that same Week 17 matchup with the Lions.
A majority of Burnett’s work still came at his natural safety position where he led the defense in tackles (93) for the second time in three years. He was one of only two safeties in the NFL with at least three sacks and two interceptions, while his nine passes defensed were his most since 2011.
Burnett and third-year veteran Ha Ha Clinton-Dix led by example for a young safety group that was pressed into action several times this season due to injuries.
Safeties coach Darren Perry used the two safeties as a teaching tool for the younger members of the secondary.
“You don’t have to listen to me,” Perry recalled telling his players earlier this season. “Just watch 42 and watch 21 and watch how they conduct themselves and how attentive they are in meetings. That’s how you become a pro. That’s how you stay in this league for a long time.”
Clinton-Dix garnered several accolades for his five-interception campaign, including his first Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro selections. Yet, he and the rest of the defense will be the first to acknowledge it was a team effort.
The Packers’ ability to move Burnett around and not lose anything on the back end was one of the defense’s greatest strengths in 2016. Clinton-Dix played all 1,237 defensive snaps, with promising undrafted rookie Kentrell Brice assuming 336 snaps when Burnett dropped down to cornerback or linebacker.
Burnett was thrilled for Clinton-Dix upon hearing of his Pro Bowl selection. While he would love to have joined his fellow safety in Orlando, Burnett says he just has to “control what I control, and keep playing.”
“He’s probably as consistent and even-keeled temperament as there is,” said Perry recently. “He shows his emotions but it’s controlled.
“I think his humility and keeping it in perspective and understanding we have a great opportunity – I think he’s very appreciative and thankful for that, and really just trying to take advantage of it. You could see that. I think that just kind of permeates.”
Inside Lambeau Field, the team knows how valuable Burnett was this year with McCarthy adding that the veteran safety “came out very high” on the coaching staff’s rankings after reviewing the film this season.
As offenses continue to evolve, it’s going to be up to players like Burnett to test their limits and step into new roles. Whatever was asked in 2016, the safety didn’t shy away from it.
“I’m pretty sure every guy in this locker room has faced some type of adversity to get them here,” Burnett said. “I felt as a team, as you go through a season, you’re going to face adversity but it’s about how the great teams respond and react.
“You see a lot of teams that can’t handle pressure like that and I mean, we had it coming from every angle, but guys didn’t pay any attention to it. We kept working and kept pushing, so it didn’t surprise me that we could get it turned around.”