Burnett now the leader in Packer secondary
The calls still come in. Every once in a while, Nick Collins reaches out to Morgan Burnett. They talk family. They talk football. To this day, Burnett says, Collins treats him like a little brother.
And inevitably, big brother always offers a tip, a pointer for the Green Bay Packers safety. The theme is constant.
“Trust your instincts.”
“Believe what you see.”
The Packers don’t want their defensive backs to stray from the system. Coaches preach, players preach, everyone inside the building repeats the same line—“trust the defense.” Do your job, stay home and interceptions will come. These last two seasons, Burnett followed marching orders. As one of only two players in the entire NFL to play every snap, Burnett was rewarded with a four-year, $24.75 million contract extension.
Now, it’s time for a little something extra. Collins made his move in Year 4. This season, the Packers are counting on a similar leap from Burnett.
He has no plans to jaywalk. But it wouldn’t hurt to listen to Collins, either. He knew when to strike.
“Basically, play your game, play your rules, but at times don’t be afraid to let your instincts take over, your football instincts take over,” Burnett said. “Just watching film on Nick, you can tell that on some plays he made, it was just football instincts. His great athletic plays, you can see Nick just playing with great football instincts.”
Last season, film sessions for the defensive backs were often comical—for the wrong reasons. Interceptions, in week-to-week regret, were left on the field. An epidemic spread. Safeties coach Darren Perry said Burnett could have had seven interceptions—“easily.” Players teased Jerron McMillian for his love of tipping the ball.
The tips, the deflections must become interceptions. Last season, sacks were up and missed tackles were down, but Dom Capers’ defense regressed most on interceptions. After 31in 2011, the Packers had 18 last season.
Burnett was central to the problem.
He let one pass to Calvin Johnson zip through his hands, a play that “still makes him sick to his stomach,” Perry said. Against Chicago, he missed one. Against New Orleans, he collided with Tramon Williams when the ball was in the air. At New York, he missed another.
“Those are the types of plays where if you just play with the proper technique and do what you’re supposed to do—don’t get nosy, don’t start looking for this—because that’s when you start putting the defense at risk, when you start looking for things and get caught up in ‘I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that,’” Perry said. “It’s about us. If you keep that in mind, you’ll still make your plays.”
So Burnett won’t spin Collins’ words as a license to freelance. One reason Charles Woodson didn’t excel at safety was his quick trigger, his tendency to wander. Still, playing a tad less robotic wouldn’t hurt. Collins found the balance.
Burnett is Green Bay’s best hope for a true playmaker, another All-Pro. Gone are headliners from the 2010 Super Bowl defense—Collins, Woodson, Desmond Bishop, Cullen Jenkins. As much as Burnett swats away comparisons to Collins, it’s one that applies.
Up first are Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III. A smart, athletic, playmaking counterpunch at safety is a necessity.
The veteran Williams sees star potential.
“I can see what he can do,” Williams said. “I know he knows what he can do. So it’s going to be exciting to see. Every year you come in and you never know what the season’s going to bring, you never know how it’s going to play out. The only thing you can go off of is what you see in a guy.
“I know personally that he can be an All-Pro player. He’s shown a lot of flashes of it. I think he’s ready for it.”
A long, long ways from, say, Green Bay’s hang-on-for-dear-life win at San Diego in 2011. That game, Burnett and Williams traded stares and glares after big plays. Confusion ran rampant. Communication, lost in translation. Philip Rivers threw for 385 yards.
Burnett played quarterback in high school—barking orders is not new. But the quieter Burnett is now reading offenses and shouting in the middle of 70,000-plus. Since that Chargers game, he has learned to speak up.
He remembers that game well.
“It was kind of hesitant to where, ‘I think it’s this,’ but I was hesitant,” Burnett said. “There were times I was hesitant and not loud and decisive. Now, I feel everyone out there is loud, decisive and communicating. Guys are pre-snap talking to one another so if we get a crazy shift or motion, we know we’ll all be on the same page and get through the down.”
Reaching this point took time. In position meetings, Perry often draws up different formations. He makes the safeties diagnose split-second calls and checks. The Packers have full faith that Burnett will be a savant in the secondary for years. Communication breakdowns of 2011 ceased in 2012.
Now, as the bank account reflects, the Packers turn to Burnett for more.
When Collins became an All-Pro talent, “he was a beast,” Burnett said. After four picks in three years, Collins totaled 17 his next three.
Burnett won’t target a number. But as the young roster gets younger, Green Bay is counting on more from him.
“I’m just going to go out,” Burnett said, “do my job and as the safety, the commander on the back end being loud and decisive with my checks, when those plays come, make the best of them.”