GREEN BAY – While an inordinate amount of time this offseason was spent discussing the Green Bay Packers’ safety situation – coach Mike McCarthy was asked some variation of Is Charles Woodson moving to safety? at the NFL Draft, the rookie orientation camp, the three open organized team activity practices and the mandatory minicamp – precious little was said about Morgan Burnett.
But while it’s important to figure out what they’ll do at the so-called “other” safety position to replace three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins following his release this spring after a career-threatening neck injury, it may be even more important that Burnett takes a major step forward in his third season after a torn anterior cruciate ligament ended his rookie season and his performance in 2011 was uneven.
Starting all 16 games – 14 of them after Collins’ neck injury in Week 2 at Carolina – Burnett finished the 2011 season with 107 tackles, one sack, three interceptions and 14 pass breakups. He also forced two fumbles and recovered two.
But ask safeties coach Darren Perry what he needs to see from Burnett in his third NFL season, Perry doesn’t hesitate.
“Leadership. Being the true quarterback, true take-charge guy,” Perry replied. “Consistency, which is something he should feel real good about coming into this year, having the experience under his belt, being healthy. Just having a better understanding of this defense and call command and relaying our checks to the remainder of our defense – (that) will only get better.”
Asked the same question, Burnett replied: “Just continue to learn, continue to get better. That’s my main goal is going out every day and finding ways to improve as a player and mentally.”
One difference in the Packers’ defense last season as compared to 2010 was which player remained at safety after a season-ending injury. In 2010, it was Burnett who went down in Week 4, leaving Charlie Peprah to fill in for him while Collins remained the defense’s quarterback in the back end. Last year, Burnett was thrust into that role when Peprah had to replace Collins, and that led to problems.
“He’s really stepped up in that area,” Perry said. “I’m excited about him. He’s always been a pleasure to coach. His athleticism stands out clearly in a lot of things he does. I’m excited about where this guy can go. I think he’s going to be a heck of a football player.”
If that’s going to happen, Burnett will also have to become a more well-rounded safety. When playing with Collins, Burnett played mostly strong safety, which allowed him to play near the line of scrimmage. When playing with Peprah, who has struggled in space, Burnett played deep as the free safety and was scarcely better than Peprah there. While the cornerback corps had plenty of its own issues, the group also lacked the security blanket that Collins provided. Burnett simply didn’t inspire the same confidence.
Meanwhile, although statistically Burnett wasn’t among the defense’s chief bad-tackling culprits -- according to ProFootballFocus.com, Woodson led the team in missed tackles last season with 18, followed by cornerback Tramon Williams with 16, Peprah with 11, No. 3 cornerback Sam Shields with 10 and Burnett with nine – tackling remains an area of needed improvement for the 2010 third-round pick from Georgia Tech.
Of course, it’ll also help that Burnett won’t have to play one-handed like he did last year, when a fractured right hand suffered in practice just days before the team’s Oct. 16 game at St. Louis forced him to play with a bulky club cast for five games. He eventually moved to a less restrictive cast, but the hand was a factor in his tackling.
Then again, the Packers have greater issues than Burnett’s tackling – namely, finding Collins’ replacement. M.D. Jennings worked at that spot during the offseason OTAs and minicamp, but Woodson moving there in the base defense remains an option, as is rookie fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian and Peprah keeping the job – but his ability to elevate his game will be a significant factor in whether the NFL’s worst-ranked defense improves.
“It’s a big learning curve for all of us, all of those safeties in the room,” Burnett said. “We’ve got to learn to work together, be more assertive in the secondary, trust our techniques and be loud with our communication. The good thing with Coach Perry is he allows us to be interchangeable, so it’s very important that you learn both positions and be ready at all times.”
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