Past the midway point of the 2013 season, the Green Bay Packers are still playing the waiting game on Morgan Burnett.
It started with the 24-year-old safety missing the first three games of the regular season with a hamstring injury. More recently, however, the issue has been tackling and a lack of play-making, two deficiencies prominent throughout the entire defense.
By all accounts, Burnett has been solid enough in the Packers’ secondary that missed him dearly when he was gone. Following a forgettable performance against Philadelphia two weeks ago, the coaches felt he bounced back with a season-high 12 tackles in Sunday’s 27-13 loss to the New York Giants.
Still, the organization didn’t fork over a four-year, $24.75 million extension in July for simply solid. That kind of contract and the $8.25 million signing bonus that goes along demands a difference-maker.
That’s not to say it won’t happen eventually, but it hasn’t shown yet. In seven games since his return, Burnett has tallied 50 tackles with three pass deflections. He’s averaging one missed tackle a game, according to Pro Football Focus, after whiffing on 12 in 16 games last season.
Meanwhile, the Packers remain one of only two NFL teams that have yet to produce an interception from their safety room with the other being the 1-9 Jacksonville Jaguars, who seem destined for the first pick in April’s NFL draft.
“You know, we’d like to make more plays all the way across the board,” said Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, whose defense has four picks this season. “Probably our biggest Achilles’ heel is we haven’t been able to get the takeaways that we’ve always gotten. So I don’t think there’s really much difference in our pass-rush numbers, but there’s a big difference in our takeaway numbers. And takeaways influence the game so much.”
General manager Ted Thompson shunned a safety-laden draft class last April in favor of building around third-year pro M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian. So far, the results have varied.
Jennings won the battle because of his reliability in coverage, but still plays hesitant at times and has only one turnover-generating play in 20 starts. McMillian fell out of the defensive rotation due to blown assignments in coverage and now sits behind undrafted rookie Chris Banjo as the backup safety.
The Packers still have 6-foot-2 Sean Richardson awaiting activation from the physically unable to perform list, but has only 15 NFL defensive snaps to his career ledger.
That means the Packers will need to get better from within with Burnett needing to continue his maturation into the type of safety they envisioned when they extended him last July.
He's certainly shown he has the ability. His two-interception performance in a 23-14 win over Minnesota last December still stands as an example of how high he ceiling runs.
“I think Morgan didn’t have his best game last week (against Philadelphia), but I was comfortable with the way Morgan played (Sunday),” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We didn’t really get our hands on the balls as much as we had hoped. I thought the Giants did a good job protecting the football, particularly their running backs in their underneath coverage because that’s something you emphasize every week. Just going through the tape, yes, I thought Morgan played well.”