GREEN BAY, Wis. — Mike McCarthy doesn’t publicly sing the praises of the young players on his Packers roster too often, but third-year starting safety Morgan Burnett certainly earned every bit of his coach’s admiration with his performance so far throughout training camp.
“He’s someone that they’ll be talking about throughout the league,” McCarthy said of Burnett following Tuesday’s practice. “I think he’s ready for that type of season. His communication is outstanding.”
Burnett has made a lot of plays in big moments during his first two years in the NFL, but the 2010 third-round pick showed during Tuesday’s practice that he’s taken another significant step forward in his progression.
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In a span of less than 10 minutes during team drills, Burnett made four impact plays. First, as the deep help cover, Burnett chased down wide receiver Jordy Nelson — who had gotten ahead of cornerback Tramon Williams — and jumped at the perfect time to knock down a 35-yard pass from Aaron Rodgers. Then, with Rodgers looking for tight end Jermichael Finley deep across the middle, Burnett raced in and connected with a legal shot to Finley’s body to lead to an incomplete pass.
Burnett followed that up by intercepting Rodgers on a short pass intended for wide receiver Donald Driver, who had fallen on the route. Finally, as running back Alex Green approached a group of ready tacklers, Burnett poked the ball loose and created a fumble that was recovered by the defense.
“I think Morgan is clearly one of our young players that has stepped into the forefront,” McCarthy said.
With the Packers releasing three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins this offseason due to his neck injury, McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers need one of their young safeties to soften the blow of that loss. Burnett, who has been a starter since the first game of his rookie season, appears to be ready for that added responsibility.
“(Collins) always told me, ‘Just keep hustling to the ball and you never know what could happen,'” Burnett said. “That’s how you come away with picks and big plays.”
Burnett’s early career, though productive, has been filled with injuries. He played only four games as a rookie after tearing his ACL and spent much of last season playing with a giant club on his right hand due to a broken thumb.
One of the biggest issues for the Packers defense in 2011 was allowing long passing plays, with McCarthy attributing it to poor communication in the secondary. As a result, Green Bay allowed more passing yards last season than any team in NFL history.
Now, with McCarthy describing Burnett’s communication as “outstanding” only five practices into training camp, this is an encouraging sign for Capers that his defense may have already improved in that area.
“One of the job descriptions for a safety is to be able to take command and take control of the secondary, and just be loud and clear with my communication and try to get everyone on the same page,” Burnett said.
Not only is Green Bay without Collins, but the Packers also released veteran safety Charlie Peprah after a failed physical on the opening day of training camp. Peprah had started 25 games at safety over the past two season in Green Bay.
Burnett will have plenty of help, though. Charles Woodson, a career-long cornerback with 54 interceptions, has switched to safety when the Packers use their 3-4 base defensive packages.
“Having both (Burnett) and Charles back there, two very cerebral individuals to communicate the adjustments (is helpful),” McCarthy said.
However, Green Bay only uses the 3-4 base defense about one-third of its snaps.
More frequently, the Packers will be in nickel packages. In those situations, Woodson moves up to a slot cornerback location and second-year player M.D. Jennings joins Burnett as the two safeties.
That makes Burnett, at age 23, the veteran of the safety group.
“My main goal every year is just to show improvement from the previous years,” Burnett said.
If he continues making plays like he did Tuesday, Burnett has already achieved that goal.