Morgan Burnett brings versatility to Steelers secondary

Dec 31, 2017; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions running back Theo Riddick (25) runs with the ball against Green Bay Packers strong safety Morgan Burnett (42) during the second quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 31, 2017; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions running back Theo Riddick (25) runs with the ball against Green Bay Packers strong safety Morgan Burnett (42) during the second quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers turned into the winners of the second wave of free agency with their additions of Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett over a 48-hour period. Both should look to be starting caliber players next season and will make an impact on how the team drafts and fills the rest of the roster. With Morgan Burnett signing a three-year deal at low starting caliber safety pay, it should be assumed that the team is trusting him to make an impact for not only this year but for the next couple of seasons. What can the Steelers get out of Burnett, and what does he make the back end of the secondary look like?


Morgan Burnett played a variety of roles for the Green Bay Packers. The Packers shuffled their secondary around frequently, and it forced Burnett to wear multiple hats. Early in the season, the Packers put him almost exclusively in the box as an extra linebacker. Kentrell Brice and Haha Clinton-Dix played safety, and with two cornerbacks on the outside, the team was technically in sub-package football exclusively, with Burnett being a fifth defensive back. However, his presence near the line of scrimmage helped out in run defense better than it would with an extra slot cornerback on the field.

However, the team drafted Josh Jones with the purpose being that he could step into that rover linebacker role. As Jones took over that spot, the team began to move Burnett around. Burnett played in the slot, he played near the line of scrimmage as a strong safety, and he swapped in and out of the box with Clinton-Dix to take the deep center as a free safety at times.

In fact, this is a breakdown of everywhere Burnett aligned in 2017. 34% as a linebacker, 28% in the slot, 26% as a strong safety, 11% as a free safety and 1% of the time he lined up outside. That typically occurs when a tight end or running back motioned out wide.

Best Use

Between linebacker, slot, and strong safety, about 88% of the snaps he played last season were in the box, near the line of scrimmage. This is where Burnett is going to be utilized best.

In coverage, Burnett is smart. He called plays for the Packers last season, and was very aware of crosses, breaking routes and other types of misdirection. As shown in the play below, crosses and flares out to the running back do not phase Burnett

In the play below, Burnett is matched up on the running back. Watch as he shifts across the line of scrimmage. The design of the play is to have the route breaking from the slot throw Burnett off of his path. This should make an easy catch situation for the back, and room down the sideline to run. However, Burnett sees it coming, gets out in front of the route, and beats the play to the sideline, forcing Matt Ryan to change his mind. Lining up in the box as a linebacker, Vince Williams, and Jon Bostic may not have been able to pull this off.

These quick passes with crosses were a staple in the Eagles and Patriots offenses of a year ago. These teams are looking to make life easier on the quarterback by getting the ball out of his hands, and into a skill players hands quickly. The quick passing, motions, variety of formations and crosses are to throw off the defense. While they are reacting to what they see, the offense should be moving fast to get the ball out in space. However, a quick processor such as Burnett near the line of scrimmage is a remedy for that. He is able to read the play and make a break n time, to shut the screen pass down in the backfield.

Burnett is also comfortable in man coverage near the line of scrimmage. As mentioned, he can move outside to take on tight ends and running backs out wide. He also can hang in the slot with bigger wide receivers. Below, Julio Jones takes on Burnett from the slot. Burnett is taking away the middle of the field. He is able to recognize the break of Jones and change directions with quick feet to shut off the throwing lane. Lastly, his strength helps knock the ball away from the physically imposing wideout.

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Burnett does not have the long speed to hang with quicker pass catchers over the middle, though. This is why keeping Burnett closer to the box is likely the best scenario.

Run Defense

There are some questions when it comes to Burnett playing so close to the box. Most of it has to do with run defense. At about 210 pounds, he is obviously not going to be the most physical run defender. He is also not the most instinctive in terms of feeling blocks.

You can see below that Alex Mack was able to get into the second level to seal Burnett off and create a crease up the middle.

Burnett is unaware of the pulling tight end who is able to take him out and again give his man a crease.

However, he did show promise as well. In the play below, he is a strong safety and comes down into the box as the ball is snapped. His duty on this play is to follow Le’Veon Bell. Steelers fans know about the patience, and how hard it is to track down Bell before he bursts into the open field. However, watch Burnett. He is moving low to the ground and is sliding with Bell as Bell plays Frogger, looking to pick his hole. Burnett shuffles into a jumble in the middle of the field making it tough for Bell to see him. However, Burnett has his eyes on Bell and is waiting for him to hit the hole to his right. When Bell hits the hole, Burnett, who is waiting for it, pounces.

Affecting the Steelers secondary

Mike Mitchell was set to make about $5 million this season. Over the next three seasons, the Steelers are going to be paying Burnett an average annual salary just $200K less than Mitchell would have made. Essentially, instead of extending Mitchell, the team let him go and signed Burnett. The team looks to view Burnett as a starting asset, not just this season, but into the future as well.

So, how does this affect the Steelers plans? Burnett is not going to play free safety. He can play two deep at times, but his best attributes come in the box. Therefore, Sean Davis is going to have to be moving away from the ball more. In base defense, Davis will be the free and Burnett will play strong.

However, with the versatility of Morgan Burnett, there is a lot more that can be done with him. Sub-package football dominates now, and that is where the Steelers will be a majority of the time. That often means taking Javon Hargrave off of the field for Mike Hilton. However, the Steelers experimented in the differing looks of their nickel and dime defenses recently.

In the nickel, they experimented with taking Vince Williams off of the field, adding Hilton into the slot, and then shifting one of Bud Dupree or T.J. Watt off of the ball more.

In dime, they can show a variety of looks based on their matchups. This should surprise nobody that the New England Patriots are one of the toughest teams in the NFL to matchup against. It is because Rob Gronkowski and their running backs are so strong in the passing game but obviously bring just as much to the running game. The team can spread you out with five wide, even if that includes two running backs and a tight end. So, teams have to be ready to stuff the run and spread the field on defense. The play below is the Steelers attempt to do so.

Of course, they were a bit shorthanded. The idea would be that Bostic would slide in for Fort. Burnett would claim the box, where Davis currently is, across from Gronkowski. Davis would slide back into the spot of Mitchell. Then, Cameron Sutton or a rookie could step in for Gay as an extra cornerback who could also play the deep half in a pinch. This idea leaves the idea to draft a safety in the first round open.

Another variation is the play below, where Williams and Hargrave come off of the field for an extra defensive back and pass rusher. As you can see Watt is off of the ball. He can play in space but is also still a big enough presence to maintain in the box against the run. Again, Burnett would slide in for Davis. Davis would either slot in for Gay, as pictured, or would be even deeper where Mitchell is. This again would leave the spot of Gay or Mitchell, not pictured, open for Sutton or a rookie.

The signing of Morgan Burnett does not eliminate the idea of a defensive back in the first round or early in the draft. If anything, this just makes the defense as a whole more versatile, and more open to taking any position it chooses in the first round.

Burnett is a chess piece. It would be limiting of his skill set to jam him into one role. Put him in the box to defend the run. Put him on tight ends in the slot, and running backs in the backfield. The versatility of Morgan Burnett is easily the greatest advantage that he brings to the Steelers. It will be on Keith Butler to use his versatility properly and expose his skill set to the Steelers advantage.

– Parker Hurley is Pittsburgh Steelers team manager of Full Press Coverage. He covers the NFL. Like and follow on and Facebook.


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