Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Morgan Burnett may feel right at home tonight when the Green Bay Packers return to his hometown of Atlanta for a little dance with the defending NFC champion Falcons, but fans might consider him out of place in Mercedes-Benz Stadium as a linebacker.
While roaming the rear of Georgia Tech's defense from 2007-'09, the College Park native routinely found himself in the middle of everything, racking up 237 combined tackles and assists and 14 interceptions in three seasons at safety.
He's played quite a bit of safety for Green Bay, too, in 91 games since he was drafted in the third round in 2010.
His new home on the Packers' defense, though, often tends to be at inside linebacker in the new "Nitro" package that Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers has designed.
There are multiple variations, but most often when Green Bay goes nickel -- with five defensive backs -- Burnett will be one of the four linebackers deployed and the traditional safety spots will be manned by former Alabama standout Ha Ha Clinton-Dix Ha-Ha Dix and second-year pro Kentrell Brice.
Truth be told, Burnett plays several spots on defense.
"He's a physical safety. They put him down to play in the linebacker spots. He can totally handle the in-the-box stuff," said Falcons head coach Dan Quinn. "You can tell he's put the work in in the run game to play at linebacker depth, play behind the ball and deal with the guards and tackles, which is not something that [safeties] normally do."
With Burnett closer to the line of scrimmage, the Packers are better equipped to cover Atlanta running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in the passing game and the 6-1, 212-pound Burnett can hold his own in the run game.
In seven-plus NFL seasons, he's racked up 654 total tackles, 44 pass breakups, seven interceptions, seven forced fumbles and 10 fumble recoveries. Pro Football Weekly recently ranked him as the NFL's 11th-best safety -- even though he's now more of a linebacker.
Last season, Burnett led Green Bay defensive backs in tackles per snap (one every 10.2) and in passes defended per snap (one every 78.7).
After dabbling at linebacker last season, he spent quite a bit of time there in the preseason and in last week's season-opening 17-9 throttling of the Seahawks. He doesn't seem to mind the change of scenery.
"I enjoy playing the game of football and I take pride in being a competitor every time I step out onto the football field," Burnett recently told USA Today. "It doesn't matter where you line me up, I'm going to find a way to make it work . . .
"You have to come in the box, play the run, play deep and sometimes go into the slot and cover a receiver or tight end man-to-man. You have to be versatile in this defense."
Green Bay deployed the "Nitro" package on 42 of 49 defensive snaps in last Sunday's throttling of the Seahawks and the Falcons can expect to see quite a bit of it tonight. The Packers have bad memories of their last meeting with Atlanta, a 44-21 win by the Falcons in January that punched Atlanta's ticket to the Super Bowl.
The Falcons gouged the Packers for 493 yards that day, led by quarterback Matt Ryan, who had a passer rating of 144.9. Atlanta knows tonight is likely to look and feel different, and not just become they've moved from the Georgia Dome to Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Green Bay is faster on defense, helped by Burnett's move forward.
"He's a guy that you see in all kinds of different spots; he could be high, he could be down at the line of scrimmage, inside, outside . . . he's in all kinds of different spots throughout the game" Ryan said. "[He's] certainly a good player and a guy we've got to account for."
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy suggested this week that Burnett may be Green Bay's most important defender.
"He's important for the operation, but he's more important for the number of positions he can play for us," McCarthy said. "Morgan's a leader, one of our established leaders. He's an excellent communicator, knows the defense in and out. He's been giving us a lot of flexibility to move him around to other positions."