Burnett's return should boost run defense
He's the quiet one inside the Green Bay Packers' locker room.
Blink, and you might miss Morgan Burnett passing through. He doesn't speak much when the cameras and digital recorders are fixed on him. At his locker, Burnett is reserved.
His presence on the field has been more noticeable.
The Packers felt a tangible difference when their fifth-year safety was missing two weeks ago against the New Orleans Saints. Burnett, sidelined with a calf injury, left a void. The two deep balls Drew Brees completed, leading to touchdowns. The 172 rushing yards Mark Ingram racked up.
Maybe those breakdowns don't happen if the Packers had the player coach Mike McCarthy calls Green Bay's quarterback on defense.
"Burnett was missed in New Orleans, and just to see him out there today, it's different," McCarthy said Wednesday after the safety returned to practice. "It's different when you have your top safety back there making your checks and communicating."
Green Bay's run defense took a significant tumble with Burnett on the sideline.
In the three games before New Orleans, the Packers allowed an average of 110 rushing yards per game to the Carolina Panthers, Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings. No running back reached 75 yards.
That's not enough to become a top-10 run defense in the NFL, but it's significantly better than the 153.4 yards per game the last-place Packers run defense is allowing this season.
Burnett wasn't the only key to an improving run defense. Nose tackle Letroy Guion's emergence in the middle helped the Packers hold ground at the line of scrimmage. Rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has brought a physical presence.
Still, no player was more important than Burnett. Over and over, the safety filled holes and prevented big plays.
"He's our most experienced guy," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "You've seen him play very well. You take the quarterback away, it affects the communication, the confidence level, a lot of those things.
"I think he's just been playing with confidence. He showed up playing the run. He's had some physical plays in the run game."
McCarthy said Burnett reached another level near the end of Green Bay's win against the Chicago Bears in late September. A couple of "physical" tackles, and Burnett found a groove. He carried the momentum over to the next three weeks.
In each game, the video was impressive.
Third-and-7 against the Vikings, Burnett crashed the box from 10 yards off the ball. Running back Matt Asiata was running hard, barreling downfield. Burnett tackled him 2 yards behind the first-down marker.
The next week, the Packers faced fourth-and-goal against the Dolphins. Burnett jumped the snap, stopping Knowshon Moreno 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage for a key goal line stand.
Against the Panthers, Burnett had his lone tackle for loss this season. On first-and-10, the safety met Jonathan Stewart in the open field. Stewart couldn't escape. Burnett wrapped up and drove him through the whistle.
In New Orleans, the Packers didn't have their highlight eraser. There was no one crashing the box, filling running lanes, cleaning up tackles.
"We missed him a great deal," outside linebacker Clay Matthews said. "Obviously, you saw some of the plays that were on the deep end in which, who knows, maybe he could've made a play there, broken up a pass, gotten an interception. As well as in the run game. He does a great job. We ask a lot of our safeties to come down there and be some heavy hitters, almost like a linebacker in there.
"It's not an excuse for our defense but nonetheless, yeah, you take a player of his caliber who's been around here this long and knows the intricacies of the defense, it's not going to help your defense (with him injured)."
More than once, McCarthy has said Burnett is having his best season as a pro. The numbers back it up.
Despite missing one game, Burnett is on pace for a career-high 88 tackles.
"I'm just going out really doing my job," Burnett said.
Other statistics highlight Burnett's production even more. He is tied for fourth among NFL safeties with 12 run stops. He's had seven run stops in the box, tied for ninth in the league.
Most importantly, Burnett's three missed tackles this season are the fewest for safeties ranked among the top five in run stops.
"It's just consistency," safeties coach Darren Perry said. "I mean, we haven't asked him to do anything different than what he was doing last year. He's just playing at a more consistent base, and we've got to keep that going."
This week is a new challenge.
In practice, Perry said, Burnett is moving around well on his injured calf. Burnett said he feels 100 percent healthy, back to normal. Still, live reps in a game are different.
Through eight weeks, Burnett is showing the Packers that the four-year, $24.75 million contract extension he signed before the 2013 season was a good investment. He also knows there are eight games left.
So Burnett appreciates McCarthy's praise. He's pleased with the numbers. Quiet and reserved, the veteran isn't ready to crown this season as his best. There's more work to do.
"I feel like I was playing good (before the injury)," Burnett said. "I'm not going to say I'm playing at my best because there's always something I can get better at, and there's always something I can learn and grow from.
"Do I feel I'm there yet? No, I've got a little ways to go. I've got to keep improving, and that's the thing. I'm going to challenge myself to keep getting better."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood.