Until deep into the second half, Packers defensive back Quinten Rollins, the second corner on the depth chart heading into training camp, was headed for “DNP — Coach’s decision.”
If not for Marwin Evans cramping, that may have been how it stayed, at least in terms of defensive reps.
When Kentrell Brice went down against Atlanta, Josh Jones, a safety drafted to play sub-package linebacker, replaced Brice, a safety. Conventional wisdom suggested Morgan Burnett, a safety now playing linebacker in the Packers’ Nitro package, would slide back to safety, allowing Jones to play his more comfortable box role.
Without time to prepare, it was hard to fault Dom Capers from sliding Jones in at safety against the Falcons with Burnett preparing to play his Nitro role.
But against the Bengals, the Packers showed a different concept entirely.
With the full week to prepare Jones to play, he took over Burnett’s role as the Nitro ‘backer, exactly as one might imagine. But instead of going back to his safety duties, Burnett — who played every defensive snap of the game — played nearly 60% of the time in the slot.
Rollins only got on the field when Evans went out, as Burnett slid back to safety and pressed Rollins into duty as the slot corner.
Are you following?
Burnett has played all over this Packers defense and has adapted with alacrity. Once again he shined in this new role, duties he took up last year when the Packers battled ridiculous injuries at the corner position.
Acquitting himself so well in the slot was one reason Green Bay liked Burnett in the Nitro package. He could play underneath coverage in zone against slot players, and also slide over to cover tight ends and running backs in man coverage.
Against the Bengals, Capers dropped the pretense and said “Morgan, you’re a slot corner.”
Burnett played just a handful of snaps in his Nitro spot, and about 15 as a more traditional safety, mostly in the second half with Evans out.
Right now, Burnett is the best slot corner on the team, certainly better than Rollins. And with Davon House injured, Damarious Randall has to play on the outside with Kevin King.
Once House returns, a timetable that remains unclear, Burnett may simply remain in the slot, particularly if Evans plays well or if Brice returns from injury.
This change does two things.
First, it puts one of Green Bay’s better cover players in more coverage situations. Burnett had a tremendous breakup on a 1 vs. 1 situation vs. Julio Jones against Atlanta. He once again shined against the Bengals in coverage.
He’s a better option than Rollins, who has been a disaster in coverage this season and simply lacks the athletic traits needed to play the slot. Burnett is not the ideal slot defender, but he’s faster, more instinctive and a better tackler. Putting Burnett around the action at the line of scrimmage also gives him more opportunities to make plays.
Secondly, Josh Jones replaces him as the Nitro ‘backer, putting in a bigger, more physical player to fill a role that requires such skills.
Jones led the team in tackles Sunday, posting 12 along with two sacks and three TFLs. he had eight “stops” according to Pro Football Focus, tops on the team.
His versatile, instinctive skillset is best suited for the Nitro package. Green Bay can reasonably go small with him because he’s not actually that small, and plays with considerable force.
For comparison’s sake, Telvin Smith, the athletic Jaguars linebacker, is 6’3” and 218 pounds. Jones is 6’1”, 220, not only bigger overall, but stouter and thicker because of the height difference.
Playing Jones at linebacker isn’t a stretch. Playing Burnett, not even 210, was and Green Bay run defense suffered as a result. Atlanta in particular took advantage of the Packers’ size on the ground.
The Bengals couldn’t, in part because of how well Jones played, but also the terrific snaps Blake Martinez gave this defense. It was his best game as a pro, showing confidence and burst downhill to the ball carrier. In fact, Martinez and Jones made back-to-back stops in overtime to give the Packers the ball on the decisive drive.
Oh, and Morgan Burnett made the play on third-and-one in the fourth quarter to keep the Bengals from picking up a first down, forcing a field goal, and keeping the lead just one score. Joe Mixon slipped on the play, but Burnett had filled the hole and would have been there to meet Mixon either way.
Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Packers experiment with some traditional nickel once Jake Ryan gets back, simply because they can keep Jones and Burnett on the field at the same time with Burnett’s move to the slot.
Against a team like Chicago, for example, one without any receivers capable of making a play, Green Bay could use Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez as their nickel linebackers with Burnett in the slot and Jones playing safety with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Given the lack of explosive ability for the Bears in the passing game, Jones could still play in the box to account for Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. It wouldn’t take away from the things Jones can do well and the Packers can reasonably trust King and Randall to take care of well-below-average receivers for Chicago.
Ryan, for his part, may not be ready in time to make that a possibility, but Green Bay could attempt such a scheme against a run-heavy team like Dallas as well.
More players excelling in their roles creates opportunity for the Packers to be creative, an opportunity Dom Capers relishes.
With September looking more and more like extended preseason, Green Bay shouldn’t be worried about experimenting with the roles on their defense, particularly given the experimenting is more out of injury-forced necessity.
When the Packers defense is healthy, they could find out they have more capable players than they have playing time, a luxury this defense hasn’t experienced in a long time.