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Oren Burks’ potential return from injury can mitigate Josh Jones absence

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Losing an ultra-athletic safety for a team with versatile tight ends and running backs isn’t ideal, but the Packers rookie linebacker was brought to Green Bay specifically for these moments.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

For once, the Packers come into a season at or near full health. With just Jake Ryan missing, 21 preferred starters will be healthy when the Bears come to Lambeau Field on Sunday night, but one key sub-package player won’t suit up.

Josh Jones will miss the game with an ankle injury, leaving Green Bay potentially vulnerable in sub-package situations in which Mike Pettine might be inclined to deploy three safeties. Especially in a game with versatile non-receiver weapons like Trey Burton and Tarik Cohen, having athletic defenders who can match them will be key.

But that’s why Brian Gutekunst traded up to get linebacker Oren Burks from Vanderbilt. In his first preseason game, Burks struggled in some of his run responsibilities and was slow to disengage from blockers. As a cover player though, he thrived in man and zone responsibilities. Against the Steelers, he once again showed his knack for coverage as a former safety, but looked much more comfortable firing his guns, coming downhill and making plays against the Steelers ground game.

A shoulder injury derailed his development, but after practicing this week, he appears to be a go for Sunday night’s tilt. Officially he was listed as questionable on Friday, but if he plays, he could just be the key to slowing down Chicago on Sunday night.

Expect Burks, assuming he stays healthy through the game, to play nearly every snap for Mike Pettine’s defense and provide the type of athleticism the team will need against a revamped Bears offense. In nickel situations, Pettine has been taking a pass rusher off the field and replacing him with a defensive back. Depending on the situation, that extra player is either a cornerback or a safety.

Given how often the Bears will likely be in 11 personnel with three receivers —Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Anthony Miller or Kevin White — that player will often be fellow rookie Jaire Alexander to play in the slot. Last year, the Packers were one of the best teams in football defending the run out of nickel personnel on defense and the addition of Muhammad Wilkerson should make them even more stout in that area.

Consider how effective they were in that area even when Morgan Burnett was playing de facto linebacker at 6-foot-1 and 209 pounds.

The ability to play a true nickel with two linebackers without sacrificing anything in coverage should make Pettine’s nickel defense even more effective in the run game, while also leaving capable cover men on the field.

A rookie against Cohen or Burton may not be ideal on a regular basis, but Jones hadn’t exactly become an elite cover safety in his own right. It’s not at all safe to assume that keeping Jones off the field, even without an injury, in favor of Burks is actually a downgrade. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest the opposite is true given how effective Burks has played in preseason.

Expect growing pains with the rookie linebacker. He’s still fooled with play action and misdirection, two staples of the Andy Reid offense Matt Nagy brings to the Bears this season. But he’s also a heady, instinctive player with tremendous physical tools. Lining him up against Burton isn’t the mismatch it would be against Jake Ryan for example. Burks gives this defense a shot to defend those athletic tight ends.

Losing Jones does take another personnel grouping off the table for Pettine, who loves to mix and match players and front to keep the offense perpetually off balance. But in terms of the skillset and what Jones does best, Burks replicates many of the in-the-box skills Jones would otherwise bring to the table.

In an offseason of remaking and reshaping, Gutekunst added a major influx of talent and depth to this Packers defense. Instead of an undrafted free agent coming in to replace Jones, as may have been the case in years past under Ted Thompson, the Packers get to turn to a rangy, athletic day-two draft pick with a pedigree and a wealth of SEC experience. Burks and Jones may not play the same position, but that’s the payoff of filling the roster with elite athletes boasting diverse skill sets.

Pettine will also get an opportunity, already in Week 1, to prove his reputation about his ability to adapt to changing personnel. But a player like Burks should make that job much easier.