Nobody knew it at the time, but rookie starting safety Morgan Burnett suffered a season-ending ACL tear during the first quarter of Sunday's victory over Detroit. And with that, the Packers' lost their lone impact draft pick and will be looking for Plan B opposite Pro Bowler Nick Collins.
"He was going in the right direction," safeties coach Darren Perry said. "I have nothing but positive expectations for him just because of where he's gone from Day 1. He's gotten a lot of reps. You could see him getting more and more comfortable with our defense, communicating, just his overall movements. The guys were getting comfortable with him. He and Nick were starting to develop a pretty good relationship. You liked the direction he was going. It's just unfortunate that he's got this setback but he'll bounce back from it."
The long-term solution is plugging veteran Atari Bigby into the lineup. Bigby is on the physically unable to perform list, where he must spend the first six weeks of the season after ankle surgery during training camp. However, Bigby hasn't played or practiced since the wild-card playoff loss at Arizona, so, Perry's optimism notwithstanding, Bigby might need a week or two of practice to get ready.
"He's been working out, he's been attending the meetings," McCarthy said. "We won't really know until we see Atari on the field. We haven't had Atari on the field since last year to see exactly where he is. Obviously, he knows our defense and has the experience."
In the short term, Derrick Martin replaced Burnett for the final three quarters on Sunday but Charlie Peprah, who missed the game with an injured quad, is considered the top backup. Jarrett Bush, who has worked at corner and safety, is another option. Charles Woodson played safety at times last season, as well.
To the best guess of the coaches and training staff, Burnett sustained the injury somewhere around the ninth or 12th defensive play of the game. However, he played 23 snaps, including on the punt team.
"He absolutely did" play with the injury, McCarthy said. "Because there's no evidence, I want to say the last six, seven snaps, of any collision or any major stop-and-start type situation where his body was in that type of position."
"It's just a testament to his toughness," Perry said.
The news came as a "shock" to defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
"It wasn't one of those where you saw it happen," he said. "The guy did it and then all of a sudden he's out there playing and they call up and say they're going to send him in. So, even after looking at the tape today, it was tough to really distinguish when he did it because he continued playing. And the last few plays that he played, you wouldn't say any indication that would indicate a torn ACL."
General manager Ted Thompson traded his third- and fourth-round picks to Philadelphia to move up 15 slots in the third round to get Burnett. After picking off 14 passes in three seasons at Tech, he had one interception and ranked seventh on the team with 14 tackles in four games.
Both Capers and Perry lauded Burnett's approach and saw him make great strides during his four games. While Burnett wasn't a major impact player, Capers noted that oftentimes, you don't notice a player when he's simply doing his job. A safety is the defense's last line of defense, and the Packers weren't allowing the type of big plays that would signal Burnett had blown his assignment or simply had failed to make the play.
"It's very disappointing for him as an individual just because of what he's put into it from the time he's been here, to have to grow up that fast, and he was getting better with each week," McCarthy said. "He had a real nice tackle there early in the game, comes up in support. You could see he was really comfortable. For a first-year player, being in a key communicating spot in our defense, I thought he did an exceptional job. He was getting more comfortable and you could see his athletic ability taking over. You feel bad for Morgan."
Added Perry: "Morgan's been a true pro since Day 1. He's a young NFL player that still has a lot of growing up to do in terms of just understanding the game. His progress really was remarkable from Day 1 and I'm very pleased with where he was at and the direction that he was going. You want to try to keep his spirits up but he'll be fine. Morgan's mature and he'll handle it well."
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