Lone Rookie Starter Ready For His Debut

With a pick of Peyton Manning in the preseason and quickly adapting to the Packers' 3-4 defensive scheme, third-round draft pick Morgan Burnett has showed signs of playing beyond his years. As the regular season nears, the Packers are banking on him to continue that.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly for a team with Super Bowl aspirations, nine rookies made the Packers' 53-man roster on Saturday. Only one, however, will make an immediate contribution as a starter.

Third-round draft pick Morgan Burnett, all but given a starting safety spot in the offseason, reinforced the decision with a solid training camp. Next Sunday, he will make his regular-season debut at Philadelphia.

"Like I've said, when my number is called, I feel I'm prepared and ready," Burnett said this week, "but I know I still got a long way to go. I'm looking forward to seeing a lot of things and learning from that."

Burnett, in many ways, has lived up to his billing as a big-play performer. He got his hands on several balls during OTAs, minicamps, and training camp. And under the most glaring spotlight, during a nationally televised game against the Colts pm Aug. 26 at Lambeau Field, he intercepted Peyton Manning.

Burnett admitted it was cool to have his first NFL pick, even though it was in the preseason, against a future NFL Hall of Famer. But it was how he made the pick that showed the progress he has made already within the Packers' defense.

"We were in zone and he passed a guy and broke into the zone," described Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers of the interception. "Peyton pretty much can read all the coverages. I think (Morgan's) got some savvy to him and I think he's a guy that will be able to come up with some balls for us because he's got good ball skills. I think he's a bright guy."

Being a safety in the 3-4 defensive scheme, however, is much more than just intercepting passes, as nice as that may be. The position needs to exhibit good range against the run and the pass. And perhaps most importantly, the safeties are key communicators, positioning players from the back end.

Burnett will share that leadership role with Pro Bowler Nick Collins as the Packers use both safety positions interchangeably. Thus far, Burnett has said there have been no communication issues during game action, but he is preparing for bigger challenges ahead by maintaining a level head.

"This defense is a lot more complicated," began Burnett. "This is much different than in college, so there's still a lot of studying and learning that I have to do. I feel like I'm understanding things better. I understand my responsibility on certain plays."

Exhibit A was his pick of Manning.

"It was just a situation where I had to drop down to my flat area and I just played my responsibility," said Burnett. "Coach always says when you play your responsibility, good things will come your way. Good things happen if you let the system work for you. That's basically what happened."

Burnett has made his share of mistakes, but has barely blinked under probably more pressure than any rookie on the roster. There is humbleness in his tone and a diligence not normally associated with rookies who possess a big-play pedigree. His position coach has taken notice of how he has handled such a high volume.

"I'm seeing him getting better," said safeties coach Darren Perry. "Consistency is an area that we're trying to focus in on. Understanding the run element in terms of run fits and where he fits in the run game. The passing game is coming. Every day for him, I think he learns something each day."

So, is he ready for the real bullets on Sept. 12?

"He has no choice," said Perry. "He'll be there. I think the guys have confidence in him and we've got confidence in him as a staff."

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com

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