The training wheels are off for Morgan Burnett and the rest of the Green Bay Packers’ young secondary.
With veteran Charles Woodson out for the next six weeks after breaking his collarbone in the final minutes of last Sunday’s 30-20 win over St. Louis, the onus will be on the 23-year-old Burnett to assume the leadership role among a collection of young safeties.
Aside from Burnett, the Packers’ unit consists of second-year pro M.D. Jennings, promising rookie Jerron McMillian and undrafted rookie Sean Richardson, who’s been primarily used in a special-teams role.
A platoon of McMillian and Jennings is expected to fill Woodson’s spot at safety in the team’s base defense next to Burnett after sharing time there in the team’s sub-packages this season.
Meanwhile, it will be up to Burnett to absorb some of the veteran responsibility on the field sans Woodson despite being in only his third NFL season, himself.
“I think now he sees the opportunity to step up and take more of a leadership role, more of a take-charge mentality because he’s our veteran guy back there at 23 years old. Scary, right?” said Packers safeties coach Darren Perry, jokingly.
“But that’s where we are. He’s done an outstanding job in terms of communicating and he’s only getting better. You’ll see his role probably increase a little bit more with Woodson being out.”
The same goes for the cornerbacks, who will be without Woodson’s presence in the slot today against Jacksonville and starting cornerback Sam Shields, who will miss his second consecutive game with a shin/ankle injury.
Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt cautioned the unit’s leadership still permeates through Woodson, who was still sitting in on meetings this past week and will be on the sideline today against the Jaguars.
Rookie cornerback Casey Hayward is expected to start again in place of Shields in the base defense before switching over to Woodson’s role in the slot in sub-packages with second-year pro Davon House continuing to work on the right side in the nickel and dime like he did last week against the Rams.
The Packers can also be creative with McMillian, who’s proven the versatility to be move from safety and into the slot in the dime package. Veteran Jarrett Bush could also be used in such a role.
Regardless, the play of Hayward helped solidify the secondary without Shields. With another inception against the Rams, Shields now has four in seven games this season, which has his name popping up in the NFL defensive rookie of the year conversation.
“I thought he played well,” Whitt said of Hayward’s work on the perimeter last week. “The kid is playing fast, very smart, communicating. Doing a lot of things that doesn’t show up to the casual viewer, but he’s doing a nice job of executing the defense and communicating and making sure everyone is on the same page.”
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