GREEN BAY – As long as Morgan Burnett has been in Green Bay, the Packers safety has recalled position coach Darren Perry talking to his room about the importance of versatility.
Yes, they’re all safeties and most of their energy will be concentrated on being safeties, but there could be times when more will be asked of them for one reason or another.
Over the course of the year, his players need to be ready if called upon to play outside of their listed positions. It’s up to each and every individual player to respond in those rare instances.
“He always tells us in our room, you guys are very athletic and you have a great skill set,” said Burnett, now in his seventh season with the Packers. “When you’re asked to do certain things, they’re not putting you in a position not believing that you could do it. There’s a reason why you do it. It’s because they believe all of us are capable of doing it.”
All of the pep talks and offseason preparation came in handy last Sunday against the Detroit Lions when the Packers were forced to dig as deep into their depth chart as they had all season.
At the same time cornerback Makinton Dorleant was being carted off to the locker room with a knee injury, teammates and coaches were surrounding Quinten Rollins after he sustained a neck injury near the Lions’ sideline.
While the Packers’ training staff tended to Rollins, Capers and his coaching staff needed to draw up emergency plans for the secondary with another starting cornerback, Damarious Randall, out with a knee injury.
So Micah Hyde bumped out to boundary cornerback to replace Rollins. Then, Burnett moved into the “star” slot position in the nickel defense with undrafted rookie Kentrell Brice alternating between Burnett’s safety spot in the nickel and the “whip” slot cornerback post in the dime.
When rookie Marwin Evans entered the game at deep safety next to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in dime, the Packers had every healthy defensive back on the game-day roster on the field.
“Obviously you don’t ever want to have what happened to us during the course of the game at the most critical time in the game,” Capers said. “You’re having to move a bunch of people around and really play at positions they hadn’t practiced that week. But one of the good things about our group is the experience we have, especially at the safety position, enabled us to work our way through the fourth quarter.”
Here the defense was playing without three cornerbacks against the offense with more fourth-quarter comebacks than 13 other NFL teams had victories in 2016. If another injury happened to any of the safeties or cornerback LaDarius Gunter, the defense would be out of its dime package.
Burnett and Hyde were the key components to the emergency plan given the vital roles they were going to play in the nickel, which has practically become the team’s base defense with how pass-centric the NFL has become in recent years.
A week after playing almost exclusively as an inside linebacker against Minnesota, Burnett now found himself playing as the No. 3 cornerback for the first time since his freshman year at Georgia Tech.
Meanwhile, Hyde bumped out to boundary cornerback for the first time since he took a handful of snaps there his rookie year in a pinch. Both players occasionally took reps at those spots in practice, but only enough to keep them fresh.
“You practice that some, but you hope it doesn’t come to that,” Capers said. “Here we are playing for the championship and we have three guys hurt at one position. You just run out of people. You can’t stop the game right then. You guys have to go out there and line up.”
As it turned out, Hyde wound up making the play of the game with an interception near Green Bay’s goal line off a back-shoulder pass intended for Golden Tate with 1 minute, 30 seconds remaining.
The Packers have leaned on Hyde in the second half of the season as both a defensive back and punt returner after Randall Cobb injured his ankle last month against Seattle.
“I think the game in Detroit shows you how valuable he is to our football team,” Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “There isn’t a position he hasn’t played in the secondary. Not only to play, but play well. His interception was probably one of the biggest plays in the game. Just a heck of a football player, a great teammate, just an unbelievable professional.”
Burnett has been one of the most important players on defense for the Packers this year. In addition to his knowledge of the secondary, he’s been called upon several times to help fill in with mounting injuries at inside linebacker.
The Packers originally taught him the position as part of their “nitro nickel” package to better match up against hybrid tight ends, a strategy the defense employed with success against the likes of Seattle’s Jimmy Graham and Detroit’s Eric Ebron.
However, Green Bay has asked more of Burnett than any of his previous six seasons due to injuries throughout the defense.
“It says a lot about him – his character, his play style, his availability, being able to go to different positions at any time,” Clinton-Dix said. “It's hard to find a guy that can play safety, that can play slot and also play in the box, so when you've got a guy like that, you've got to have him on this team, you've got to give him his respect he deserves.”
The Packers raised some eyebrows at the start of the season when they opted to go with six safeties on their 53-man roster. As it turns out, they’ve turned to all of them at some point this season.
Green Bay is hoping to have Randall back for Sunday’s Wild Card playoff game against New York. The second-year cornerback is one of seven players listed as questionable.
However, last Sunday proved the safeties are more than capable of lending a hand if they need to dip into their back end again this postseason.
“That’s the neat part about it. You have guys you can move around and put in different places like worst-case scenario,” Burnett said. “You don’t want any of your teammates to go down and you wish them a speedy recovery, but it also helps us that much more to know what each other’s job is. That helps us out as a defense.”