The Green Bay Packers came into 2018 with a solid starting defensive front seven. Blake Martinez has quickly ascended the inside linebacker ranks, Jake Ryan has been more than serviceable, the defensive line is stacked, and although the outside linebacker corps is thin, Clay Matthews and Nick Perry are nothing to sneeze at. Once Ryan went down in practice with an ACL tear, however, the depth of the was already being questioned.
Fortunately for the Packers, 2018 third round pick Oren Burks may be the answer. Let’s see how he did in his first game in Green and Gold, last Thursday’s preseason opener against the Tennessee Titans.
Green Bay has been struggling to find a competent coverage linebacker to play the “Will” position over the past several years, with safety Morgan Burnett finding the most success in that position last year. Martinez has been improving quickly in that area, but as the strongside ILB, that’s not his primary function. There’s only one Luke Kuechly in this world after all. The book on Burks — a converted safety — was that he has the athleticism and coverage experience to be just what the Packers were missing. That athleticism was on full display against the Titans.
In this first clip, Burks gives up a completion to running back Arkum Wadley on 3rd down. Wadley runs a sting route, coming in a straight line out of the backfield heading for the sideline, and looking back over his outside shoulder towards the quarterback. Blaine Gabbert hits Wadley in stride and Wadley has a few yards of separation from Burks — who is in man coverage — but Burks closes the gap quickly, keeping Wadley short of the sticks.
Burks’ athleticism allows him to play down and distance and not over-commit but instead limit Wadley to a short gain and force fourth down.
On the very next play, Gabbert throws to Wadley again, with Burks in coverage. This time Wadley runs a quick flat route; he comes out of the backfield off the left tackle, runs upfield a yard or two, and then breaks out toward the sideline. The threat of Wadley breaking inside on an angle route means Burks can’t commit to one side or the other, leaving him in a tough spot. As Wadley cuts outside, Burks is on his toes and able to get a good push forward, closing the gap between himself and Wadley.
Wadley makes the catch anyway, but Burks again limits the catch to minimal yardage. These types of plays have given the Packers defense, and their fans, more heartburn than a glass of orange juice after a bowl of spicy chili. Repeatedly, running backs have abused the Green Bay linebackers in space and picked up easy yardage. Don’t focus on results of this play, the fact that it picked up the first down; focus on the process, and you’ll see that Burks had decent footwork and closing speed, he just needed to press up a few yards closer to the line of scrimmage.
Burks’ athleticism isn’t only good for pass coverage; it also gives him good sideline range as a weak-side linebacker defending the run. In the third quarter, Tennessee runs a toss play to the weak side of the field — Oren’s direction. He diagnoses the play quickly, smartly uses his hands to knockdown and shed the cut block, takes an inside-out angle on the runner, breaks down and makes the tackle.
This type of play gets me more excited than it should. There’s so much for Burks to do here; while tosses are easy to recognize, they are also easy to over pursue, leaving a cutback lane. He doesn’t. Burks could’ve easily gotten chopped by the lineman. He doesn’t. He could have come in too high and fast on the tackle and missed. He doesn’t. This is an excellent play for the young linebacker that showcases multiple areas of positivity.
A knock on Burks, according to Lance Zierlein, was that his instincts at LB were “average”. As a rookie in the NFL, there are absolutely going to be some plays where Burks is going to make you scream at your television in anger; that happens. I have found myself screaming at the linebacking corps over and over again trying to get them to recognize the screen pass to no avail. The Packers were awful at defending the screen last year. Against the Titans, however, Burks answered my screams.
He diagnosed the play, stayed in good positioning, and blew past the screening linemen to make the stop as soon as Wadley caught the ball. Ahh, sweet relief.
The Not So Good
Of course not everything is coming up roses for the rookie linebacker. The extended playing time — more snaps than any other defender — meant Burks was going to get exposed on occasion. This is to be expected. What also is to be expected is that Burks will be swallowed by linemen on run plays, especially plays to his side. When you describe a linebacker as ‘athletic’, or ‘rangy’, this typically means ‘small’. Smaller linebackers, obviously, are more susceptible to get swallowed up in the wash.
Late in the second quarter, Tennessee runs a zone play off their right side guard. The OLB on the play, Chris Odom, makes a great play by getting his hands underneath his blocker and extending his arms, reading the running back, staying parallel to the LOS, and shedding the block. He did so well his blocker was forced to hold him.
Burks, meanwhile, extended his arms too early and absorbed the block of the oncoming guard rather than delivering the punch himself. This allowed the blocker to gain control and drive Burks back. Oren did rip through the hands of the guard to free himself, but at this point, the running back has gained five yards before Burks gets close. I like to call this one the A.J. Hawk special.
While Hawk amassed 628 tackles over 9 years in Green Bay, his reputation was that the majority of those tackles were made 5 or more yards downfield. Good for your box score, bad for the team.
The elite-athleticism-for-a-linebacker, combined with a rookie awareness level, also makes Burks susceptible to over pursuit. As the weak inside linebacker, the duties are to take an inside-out approach to pursuit of a ball-carrier, as you should receive outside support from the OLB, CB or perhaps a safety. The only time you should scrape over the top is on toss plays away, where the RB is heading straight for the sideline.
In the first quarter against the Titans, the Tennessee offense ran a zone play to their strongside, away from Burks. Oren begins the play correctly, attacking downhill and to his left, maintaining gap responsibility. Montravius Adams disrupts Wadley’s run early by avoiding the cut block (s/o to Montravius, nicely done) which makes Wadley cut the run back to the space Adams had just vacated. At the same time, Burks goes over the top of his blocker, also vacating a similar space. Compounding the issue is Kyler Fackrell getting handled (surprise surprise) and losing outside contain. This leaves the cutback lane wide open for Wadley, and he picks up a good chunk of yardage.
Adams should have made the tackle. Burks should have been there. Fackrell should have maintained outside contain. This play was a trio of errors, but the point here is that Burks, due to his smaller stature, will have to avoid blockers or gain some functional strength before he can take on a blocker directly and expect to win. Linebackers are not matadors goading lumbering linemen into lunging at them and jumping out of the way at the last second; as soon as you commit to going around a block one way or the other, you’ve instantly created a running lane, and that’s what we saw here.
Overall, Burks had a very successful evening in the preseason opener. Not only was he was quick to the ball and active in support - he led the team in tackles with a combined total of 6 - but he showed off his versatility and play recognition, traits that he will need to continue to develop throughout the year in order for the defense to thrive.