Burnett Playing, Leading Beyond His Years

Third-year safety Morgan Burnett, who hasn't even played in 30 games, is being asked to do more on the field and as a leader in Charles Woodson's absence. According to safeties coach Darren Perry, Burnett is acting like "it's his secondary."

If there's a silver lining in Charles Woodson's absence from the Green Bay Packers' secondary, it's that, at the ripe old age of 23, Morgan Burnett is emerging as a leader.

"I think he's probably stepped up his leadership," safeties coach Darren Perry said on Monday, a day after the Packers entered their bye week on a four-game winning streak. "I think he's become more vocal. You can see him starting to act as if it's his secondary in terms of trying to be that take-charge guy of communicating and making sure we're all playing the same call back there and playing with a certain style that represents our defense in terms of a physicality that we look for as coaches."

During the first week of training camp, coach Mike McCarthy predicted his third-year safety would be "someone they'll be talking about throughout the league" by season's end.

Burnett downplayed that comment when asked about it on Friday, two days before the Arizona game, but was pleased with his progress.

"My main focus is really just challenging myself to get better and better each week," Burnett said. "I want to be able to turn on the film and see where I've grown, to see where I'm improved. So, I challenge myself to just get better and better and keep working hard to consistently play at a high level."

The results through nine games back up McCarthy's contention. In 20 career games — all starts — entering this season, Burnett had 122 tackles. Just past the midpoint of this season, Burnett has 73 tackles. That puts him on pace for 130.

Making his first start in place of Woodson, Burnett had arguably the game of his career against Jacksonville on Oct. 28. He had 11 tackles — his fourth double-digits came of his career — matched his career high with three passes defensed, and added to his career numbers with his second sack, third forced fumble and first fumble recovery.

He added seven tackles against Arizona.

"I really like the way Morgan's played," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said on Monday. "His size, his instincts, the physical aspect of his game. You've obviously seen him closer to the line of scrimmage and he's assumed a little bit more of that role since Charles has been down. I couldn't be more pleased with the way he's playing right now."

When Woodson was at safety, the Packers frequently played with him in the box and Burnett in the centerfield role. Without Woodson, it's been Burnett playing close to the line of scrimmage with greater frequency.

"Really, that's where Morgan first started out at," Perry said. "If you ask him, he's probably more comfortable there just because it puts him up in the action and it gets you involved a lot quicker, as opposed to staying back in the deep part of the field and having plays have to come to you. He can get involved a lot quicker and I think that gets him going a little bit. He likes that and it's been working for us."

That means a more versatile role on defense and more of a leadership role in a young secondary. The last couple weeks, the dime package has included rookies Casey Hayward and Jerron McMillian and two second-year players who didn't play a snap on defense as rookies, Davon House and M.D. Jennings, That's a lot on the plate for a player who has played in just 29 career games.

What jumps out at Burnett when he watches the film?

"Just being loud and decisive with the checks and the calls, lining up quickly and being ready to play fast," Burnett said. "Really, just flying around and trying to get to the ball. Whether you're wrong or right, just make sure you're going 100 percent. I learned that as long as you go 100 percent, you can't be wrong. Just fly around, get to the ball and do the best that you can do."

So, can Burnett live up to the expectations espoused by McCarthy back in July? According to ProFootballFocus.com, Burnett ranks No. 11 among safeties, including tied for fourth in stops — a stat that parallels the Packers' play-by-play win-loss count.

"I think he has the ability," Perry said. "If he continues to grow, yeah, I think he'll certainly reach that. But that's going to be up to Morgan and for him to understand where he is and where he wants to get to, and us a coaching staff putting him in a position to continue to make plays."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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