GREEN BAY – Through all the injury issues the Packers encountered during the first month of the regular season, their defense always had an ace up its sleeve in Morgan Burnett.
Safety, cornerback or inside linebacker, the eighth-year veteran did it in the name of team. Need someone to relay calls from coordinator Dom Capers? Burnett handled that, too.
So it not only robbed the defense of its key communicator when Burnett pulled out of the Packers’ eventual 35-31 win over the Dallas Cowboys last month with a hamstring injury, but it also left Green Bay without arguably its most versatile player for the past two contests.
That should change Monday night against Detroit. Head Coach Mike McCarthy told reporters Saturday morning he 'fully anticipates' Burnett playing against the Lions after he was upgraded to a full participant during Friday’s padded practice.
“I don’t really consider myself a big, significant (player). I’m another piece to the puzzle and I think it takes a collective effort,” Burnett said. “As a unit, as a group, we have to do a great job of communicating together and working together because I feel each one of our jobs work hand-in-hand. I never look at it as an individual job.”
Burnett may view himself as just another spoke in the wheel of the defense, but teammates and coaches say otherwise.
The absence of the eighth-year safety the past two weeks robbed the defense of its third-eldest veteran and the centerpiece of the Packers’ “nitro” nickel package, prompting a series of changes throughout the defense and secondary.
Fellow safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix wore the communication helmet without Burnett on the field in addition to handling his usual responsibilities on the back end.
Rookie Josh Jones filled in for Burnett in nitro and became the last of the inside linebackers with Blake Martinez after Jake Ryan (migraines) exited the Packers’ Week 8 game against New Orleans.
With mounting injuries at cornerback, Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, Kentrell Brice and undrafted rookie Lenzy Pipkins also rotated in as the “star” and “whip” slot cornerbacks in the nickel and dime.
“He’s our leader,” said Capers of Burnett. “Morgan has played so many different spots for us, he understands the defense. I think it just lifts everybody else up because everybody is confident he’s going to make the calls, he’s going to get us in and out of the right things. Very consistent player.
“We’ve asked a lot of him, but he’s been around here a long time and probably understands the defense as well as anybody.”
Burnett’s return couldn’t come with better timing for the defense. During his absence, both Rollins and Brice have been placed on injured reserve. Brice, who started three games this year at Burnett’s traditional position on the back end, just went on IR earlier this week with an ankle injury.
It’ll be up to the defensive coaching staff to determine the best course of action. Capers suggested more could be asked of Jones, a second-round pick out of N.C. State, though it remains to be seen whether that could come on the back end or in the box where he’s played mostly this season.
The Packers also have another second-year safety, Marwin Evans, who has played next to Clinton-Dix at times this season.
Burnett’s experience and versatility give the Packers options for how they wants to deploy the secondary, along with the intrinsic benefit of his communication skills.
“It just shows his versatility and what he’s capable of doing in our defense,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “We’ll throw the mic back in his helmet and be in charge of getting everybody lined up and getting the call out there. Usually when he’s in front, very rarely do we have those 10 guys on the field or personnel issues. (It would be) huge having him back.”
Capers admits the Packers have work to do in the red zone and getting off the field on third down. While Burnett is only one piece of the puzzle, his return could be vital to the defense getting back to playing like it did in the opener against Seattle, when it held the Seahawks to nine points and 225 offensive yards.
From a health perspective, Burnett said he feels capable of playing wherever the Packers need him – safety, cornerback or inside linebacker. He’s just raring to go.
“I think that comes with anything that you do – the more reps you get at it, the more practice you get at it and the more time you spend on it, the better you’ll get with it,” Burnett said. “I’m still growing and developing with it. That’s why I said it’s going to take a collective group effort for us to keep improving.”