Burnett Passing Mental Challenges

Rookie safety Morgan Burnett is getting thrown into the fire immediately. Without unsigned incumbent starter Atari Bigby, Burnett has been up to the challenge while facing a diverse Packers offense that mentally challenges even the veterans.

So, if this was the Morgan Burnett who is slogging through learning a new defense, what will he be like when he's mastered the complicated system backward and forward?

At Wednesday's organized team activity, the ballhawking rookie safety had one or two interceptions (depending on whether he trapped one during an 11-on-11 period) and got his hands on a few other balls.

It's exactly what the Packers thought they were getting when they traded up in the third round to select Burnett, who had 14 interceptions in three seasons at Georgia Tech.

"Morgan is making progress," safeties coach Darren Perry told Packer Report recently. "To steal a quote from Denny Green, ‘He's what we thought he was,' keeping in mind that we're in shorts and we're in helmets right now. There's a lot of other factors that are going to determine what his role is on this football team. But up to this point, he's been fine and he's been making progress. He's got a lot of things going through his head right now from a mental standpoint."

It's only early June and overreaction tends to be the name of the game among reporters and fans. With that said, it appears incumbent starter Atari Bigby is making a colossal mistake by skipping the first two weeks of organized team activities as he refuses to sign his restricted free agent tender. With every extra rep that Burnett gets, the more he learns and the more he impresses the coaches.

"As a young guy, the more reps that you get, the more opportunities that you get to showcase and show the coaching staff that you're more than capable of handling the load," Perry said. "I think what happens is, the more reps, the more and more comfortable they become, and their teammates gain confidence. Those reps that he's getting right now, they're invaluable. I think even Atari will admit to not being able to get on-the-field reps last year probably played a little bit of a factor in his slow growth."

Not that Burnett wouldn't welcome Bigby's arrival. Despite the knocks about Bigby's range and his tempestuous health history, Bigby has been an undeniable difference maker. In the three games he missed with a knee injury last year, the Packers went 1-2. He started the final eight regular-season games, with Green Bay winning seven of eight. However, he exited the playoff loss at Arizona with a hamstring injury, and the defense suffered with Matt Giordano taking Bigby's place in the lineup. Bigby played in only seven games in 2008, when the Packers went 6-10.

"If he's here, that's helpful too because that's another vet that you can learn from," Burnett said. "I appreciate the vets because they're there for you to help you out when they can. If you need help, you can holler at them and talk to them."

Burnett's had plenty of help along the way. Older brother Cam played for Georgia Tech's in-state rival, Georgia, from 1998 through 2002. Burnett credited Cam for "steering him into football" at an early age. Nonetheless, when it was time to pick his college, Burnett followed his own instincts, choosing Georgia Tech because of its coaching and recruiting staff as well as its recruiting class.

"When we get around to Thanksgiving, we do some trash talking," Burnett said of the Georgia-Georgia Tech game that's traditionally played on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Burnett has all the physical tools to be a success, and his on-the-field production in college backs that up. The one knock on Burnett coming out of college was his intelligence. He reportedly scored a 14 on the Wonderlic intelligence test at the Scouting Combine, which is considered low for a player who will be directing a lot of traffic with the offense at the line of scrimmage. However, Burnett's ability to play fast is a testament to his football IQ. Those football smarts have been on display while facing the Aaron Rodgers-led offense's diverse menu of formations and plays. Coach Mike McCarthy's constant changing of formations is a big reason why he's one of the more respected play-callers in the NFL.

"It's one thing to do it in the classroom but to get the speed element of it and all the movements of it and particularly the formations that our offense gives us this time of year, that's a challenge," Perry said. "We don't get a chance to prep. That's not something that we study during the week and tell them that, ‘You're going to get this' or ‘You're going to get that.' They get an opportunity to really go out there and apply and use all of the rules and techniques that we've talked to them about in the meetings and you get to see them apply it out on the field. Really, they have to play sound and they have to understand what they're doing to match up against our offense."

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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 and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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