Burnett, the third-round pick who is starting at safety, finished with two tackles against Philadelphia but missed at least three tackles — including on LeSean McCoy's touchdown run. And in the one opportunity to truly make his presence felt, Burnett came up empty.
Early in the fourth quarter, standout tight end Brent Celek got matched up with outside linebacker Brad Jones and ran straight down the field. Jones had superb coverage underneath Celek. Eagles quarterback Michael Vick lofted a perfect pass over Jones, which Celek reeled in for a 27-yard completion. Playing coverage over the top on the play, Burnett could have obliterated Celek. Instead, he played for the interception and neither broke up the pass nor hit Celek.
"The way I saw the ball coming, I thought it was going to be overthrown," Burnett said on Friday. "On those plays, when you get in a gray area, you've got to go for the hit so you have a for-sure tackle."
That's what safeties coach Darren Perry made clear, both to Burnett and a couple of reporters on Friday.
"He's got to go through the receiver to get to the ball," said Perry, who was a standout safety for the Steelers from 1992 through 1998. "You can't go for the interception. You've got to understand, and it's a split-second decision that you've got to make. If there's any doubt, you've got to go and decapitate that receiver. Then you force a tipped ball, you force a drop, you force him to juggle it, then maybe with other defenders running to the ball, we still get an interception that way. You can't go around a receiver and try to intercept the ball. You've got to go through him."
Talking about it and doing it are two different things for a couple of reasons.
"You can't simulate it in practice," Perry said, stating the obvious that you can't have a safety blowing up receivers at practice. "You watch it and you see it on video and you learn from it. He's smart enough. At this level, guys understand it. It's something that you just have to be conscious of and be aware of. When you're an interceptor, you can look like that (like Burnett did on Celek's completion) at times because you're so ingrained and you've made your reputation on picking off passes. In your mind, you're trying to avoid him because you don't want to get there too early and get a pass interference. So, you're trying to use your athletic ability to go around him and still make the play. Sometimes, you can't do that."
Burnett, as Perry said, is ingrained to go for the interception. He picked off 11 passes in two seasons as a starter at Georgia Tech, which is why the Packers liked him enough to move up 15 spots in the third round to get him in April's draft.
"You've got to make a quick decision," Burnett said. "It's part of the game. It's a challenge."
Burnett's mistake can happen to a veteran at times. Perry pointed to Percy Harvin's 51-yard touchdown catch during last year's Packers-Vikings game at Lambeau Field. On that play, Nick Collins came racing from the defense's right side, dead set on picking off Brett Favre's heave down the middle. At the last second, though, Collins had to slow up because Atari Bigby was there. In the end, Collins ran into Bigby and Charles Woodson's diving attempt came up empty, and Harvin ran into the end zone with three Packers defensive backs on the ground.
"That's the fine line you've really got to be careful with, because the last thing you want to have happen is the receiver catch the ball," Perry said. "Sometimes, you've got to say, ‘To heck with the ball. I've got to get to the ball through the receiver.'"
Perry said he has "no concerns" that Burnett will get the message, and he has no doubts that Burnett is willing to throw his shoulder into a receiver and be the physical presence the safety position demands.
"You want to make plays on the ball, but at the same time, you make your reputation as a safety in this league with interceptions and big hits," Perry said. "The bottom line is, they can't catch it. It's a split-second decision. You don't have a whole lot of time to think about it. Any doubt, go through him to get the ball."
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