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Morgan Burnett’s return to slot corner with Kevin King out and what it could mean moving forward

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Dom Capers once again showed faith in his starting safety to handle receivers in the nickel. Could it be a long-term solution?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Green Bay Packers
Morgan Burnett followed Adam Humphries in the slot on a regular basis against the Buccaneers on Sunday.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Dr. Seuss would be proud of the Packers defense.

Dom Capers plays so many fronts, mixes and matches so many combinations of secondary players and linebackers, he’s run out of names for all of them.

The days of “nickel” and “dime” are long gone. We’re into “NASCAR” and “Nitro” with elephant ends and safeties playing linebacker or corner.

Up is down. Cats and dogs living together. Mass hysteria.

The fact that the last part isn’t actually true (Ok, either are the other two) is a credit to Morgan Burnett.

On Sunday he played just about every position a player can play: free safety, box safety, linebacker, slot corner, and even a little on the edge albeit as a disguise. I kept waiting for Capers to line him up next to Kenny Clark and ask him to take on a pulling guard in the hole.

Playing 100% of snaps, Burnett spent 26 of them at safety, 28 in the slot playing corner, and another 16 playing his Nitro linebacker spot.

With Kevin King dealing with an injury, rather than sliding Josh Hawkins into the starting lineup outside, Capers opted to play House and Randall almost exclusively on the boundary — Hawkins got in the game temporarily thanks to injuries to each starting corner at different times — with Burnett in the nickel corner role.

Tampa Bay plays mostly from two receiver sets, often opting for two tight ends. That allowed the Packers to spend much of the game in a more traditional base personnel on defense, even running their 4-3 look with Clay Matthews off the ball more than a dozen times.

Having Burnett in the slot isn’t actually a new development, just a redux of an old one; Capers had Burnett play the slot against the Bengals and he was outstanding.

The difference this time was they went to some of what I’ll call ultra-Nitro where instead of bringing in Josh Hawkins, Capers played Josh Jones at safety, Morgan Burnett in the slot, and brought in Jermaine Whitehead to play the other safety position.

With Jones playing nearly 80% of snaps, that meant spending most of them at safety (43 out of his 50 snaps). In fact, they was almost exclusively covering the deep half as the Packers consistently kept two deep safeties to protect against big plays, That strategy paid off and neither DeSean Jackson nor Mike Evans created much of anything down the field.

In fact, most of the success the Buccaneers offense had passing was either schemed up as screens, or came off dump offs and underneath throws.

Setting aside the snaps for Whitehead, who has apparently crept past Marwin Evans on the safety depth chart, the idea of playing Burnett in the slot makes sense.

He’s either the best or second best slot corner on the team as Damarious Randall has excelled since his benching early in the season. The drop off from Randall to Burnett is either negligible, or negative (which is another way of saying Burnett may truly be better) when you add in Burnett’s strengths as a tackler compared to Randall.

On the other hand, the drop off from Randall to Hawkins on the boundary is considerable, at the very least in terms of proven capabilities.

In short, Capers decided to put his best cover players on the field and see what happened.

Aside from the deployment of Jermaine Whitehead in man coverage against Cameron Brate, this idea worked. Burnett even covered Mike Evans effectively in the slot. Burnett, Davon House and Randall combined to hold Evans and Jackson to just 57 yards on four catches and the Packers pass rush took care of the rest.

The downside, of course, is the Whitehead snaps can’t just be explained away. If Burnett is in the slot, then someone has to play his safety position. If that’s Josh Jones, Green Bay is in good shape in coverage against tight ends and backs, but with Capers insisting on playing two deep safeties, he (rightly) decided to put the one he trusts more in the back end next to Haha Clinton-Dix.

Unfortunately, that creates a situation where Josh Jones’ cover skills and playmaking in the box can’t be utilized to their fullest capacity.

And after the opening possession in which Winston picked on Whitehead for two third-down conversions including the 28-yard touchdown to Brate, this strategy stymied the Buccaneers for much of the day.

Capers forced Jameis to hold the ball, leading to seven Packers sacks and 13 quarterback hits, plus the fumble Dean Lowry housed.

The final passing numbers suggest Winston had a very good day: 21/32 270 yards 2 TDs 0 INTs. Except when you account for sacks, it’s 230 net passing yards and suddenly an 8.5 YPA average plummets under 6 (the seven attempts where he’s sacked also count).

If not for a Packers offense that couldn’t move the ball in the second half until the waining minutes, this could have been one of Green Bay’s best defensive performances of the season.

Even with those struggles, and the Buccaneers possessing the ball almost literally the entire third quarter, the Packers defense gave up just 10 second-half points with that touchdown coming mid-way through the fourth quarter.

This strategy was effective.

And there could potentially be a home for it moving forward as well even with Kevin King healthy.

If King and House remain the starters on the boundary moving forward, it’s not hard to imagine Capers believing his best base lineup features King/House/Burnett/Jones/HHCD with four linemen and two linebackers in a traditional nickel package by definition, but allowing Burnett to slide inside to play the slot position.

In other words, the Packers defense could become more like a Seattle team that doesn’t have to go to nickel personnel as often because its linebackers and safeties are so good in coverage. That means better run fits and bigger bodies near the line of scrimmage.

Capers went to a similar package against the Steelers only it was Randall in the slot with Jones on the bench. This wouldn’t be that abnormal, except he kept four at the line of scrimmage and his two traditional linebackers on the field as well.

It’s as close to a traditional front as Capers likes to get.

Against a versatile team like the Steelers, it would have made more sense (to this writer anyway) to play the above group, which substitutes Jones for Randall if for no other reason than Green Bay doesn’t need the extra corner to cover tight ends.

That’s literally why they drafted Jones.

Instead of using him to replace a player like Jake Ryan, who has played extremely well this season, or taking a defensive linemen off the field to get Jones on it, with Burnett in the slot they can have their cake and eat it too.

This week, with a Browns team with very similar weapons (a big, fast outside receiver, a speedy receiver opposite, and a athletic pass-catching tight end) Capers could again take advantage of Morgan Burnett’s versatility.

It’s bad news for Josh Hawkins’ playing time, but potentially good news for the Packers defense.