It has happened twice since do-it-all hybrid safety Morgan Burnett’s (above left) hamstring injury during the Green Bay Packers’ Oct. 8 comeback victory in Dallas: The Packers defense has 10 men on the field, and the opponent capitalizes with a big play. Against the Cowboys, it was a 25-yard Ezekiel Elliott run early in the fourth quarter; against the Saints, it was a 22-yard Drew Brees touchdown pass to a wide-open Brandon Coleman. Both times, it was the result of a miscommunication with personnel.
The Packers are hoping such mistakes will dissipate with Burnett back in the lineup after missing the past two games, which left fellow safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix wearing the helmet with the communication headset inside. Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Burnett would once again assume that role, and not a moment too soon.
“It’s huge,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “When he's in front (of the huddle), very rarely do we have those ‘10 guys on the field’ personnel issues. So (it’s) huge having him back.”
Burnett took over the helmet headset in training camp and adjusted quickly; Clinton-Dix confessed that the job takes some getting used to.
“Morgan, he's the most experienced player on defense, he's the key communicator. We made that change this year and it's probably the best it's been,” McCarthy said. “When he's not in there, obviously responsibility falls more on Ha Ha and potentially maybe more on Blake (Martinez). But communication's important because you want to get lined up and you want to play. You want to dial in to what they're doing and when that's not intact, obviously you're not playing as fast as you can.”
The Packers have used Burnett all over the field this season, in the hybrid inside linebacker role, as a traditional safety and in coverage against slot receivers. Getting him back not only should allow Clinton-Dix, coming off his first Pro Bowl season, to play more freely and perhaps be an impact player again, but it should give defensive coordinator Dom Capers more flexibility with his other players – in addition to reducing the communication problems.
“He’s our leader,” Capers said. “Morgan has played so many different spots for us, he understands the defense. I think it just lifts everybody else up because everybody is confident he’s going to make the calls, he’s going to get us in and out of the right things. Very consistent player. We’ve asked a lot of him, but he’s been around here a long time and probably understands the defense as well as anybody.”
Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9-11 on “Wilde & Tausch” on 100.5 FM ESPN Madison.