The Green Bay Packers are looking to revamp their defense in 2017.
They were one of the worst defenses in football last season. Their run defense was average at best, and their pass defense was horrendous. Both facets were exposed by the time the Atlanta Falcons were through with them in the playoffs.
The Packers have admitted they have a problem, and they have begun to replace some of the players on their defense.
Micah Hyde, Datone Jones, and Julius Peppers were all allowed to leave via free agency without being offered a contract. Some of these players will be replaced in the draft, and others will be replaced by players who see their roles expanded with the Packers.
Morgan Burnett is one of those players. The Packers toyed with giving him a hybrid role last season, playing him as a linebacker in their nickel and dime packages. This was their way of masking their linebackers’ issues in coverage.
Burnett, who is a sound tackler and very physical, is an effective player near the line of scrimmage. His safety skills help him in coverage against pass-catching running backs and tight ends, a role the Packers used him in more often before injuries decimated their defense.
Burnett was supposed to play this role with Micah Hyde taking his typical strong safety role. Instead, injuries forced Hyde to play slot cornerback more often, keeping Burnett in the deep part of the secondary. Hyde’s departure does not necessarily make this move any easier.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy has already stated that one of the plans to make the Packers defense better is moving Burnett around.
One of the team’s weaknesses remains coverage in the middle of the field. Jake Ryan is a good player in the middle but struggles in coverage. Blake Martinez and Joe Thomas are both young players, but unlikely to be more than average.
Moving Burnett to the middle would give them someone that is capable of covering all the different pieces in a spread offense. It would take away an obvious mismatch that opponents have exploited against the Packers since Desmond Bishop was released in 2013.
Such a move would require a new player to step up at safety. The in-house option would be former undrafted free agent Kentrell Brice, who made the team after a splashy training camp.
Most thought his main contribution would come on special teams. That was largely the case, but he still did flash some potential on defense. Brice showed that he can deliver punishing hits. He is a raw player but certainly showed some intriguing talent. He is a player that could be in the mix for a big uptick in playing time should the Packers decide to move Burnett around more in 2017.
One of the more intriguing possibilities should the Packers follow through on this plan is if they move Burnett around with Clay Matthews in the middle.
Burnett’s ability to play near the line of scrimmage comes with him being a good blitzer. One of Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ favorite blitzes since his early days as a defensive coordinator is the cross dog blitz with both inside linebackers.
This has been largely ineffective during his time in Green Bay due to the weakness of the players at the position. With Matthews and Burnett playing in the middle, that could change.
At this stage of his career, Matthews is better as a rusher in the middle of the defense while Burnett is small enough to get around blockers in the middle of the field. This tandem has the potential to be much more effective than previous combinations.
The Packers defense has admitted that they have a problem. Now, they are moving toward creating a solution. Burnett is going to play all over the field next season, and that is a good thing for this defense.