Defense follows Morgan Burnett's lead
When Mike Daniels first reported to the Green Bay Packers after the 2012 NFL draft, he asked around the locker room who the leaders were in the defensive clubhouse.
He was pointed in the direction of Morgan Burnett.
The rookie defensive lineman didn't know much about the soft-spoken safety's background. He expected to find a grizzled NFL veteran. Instead, Daniels was introduced to a 23-year-old safety with two seasons under his belt.
"It's funny because I'm expecting to see some five-year, some 10-year, some 32-year-old vet," Daniels said. "The guy's my age. He just left school early."
That's been the underscore to Burnett's NFL career. He's played more than 4,000 defensive snaps in his first five NFL seasons, leading the defense in tackles on two occasions.
A months shy of 26, he's considered the general of the secondary and the go-to-guy for anything on the defensive side of the ball. As cornerback Casey Hayward puts it, everything on defense "goes through him."
His peers believe Burnett is a product of an early baptism to the NFL. He's started all 62 games of his career. Packers safeties coach Darren Perry teases him to this day about not wanting to know what Burnett didn't know those first two seasons.
Neither brash nor boisterous, Burnett rarely lifts his voice any more than he has to. He says that goes back to the maxim of his father, Cap, who always told him "Don't do too much talking. Let your play speak for you."
There have been highs and lows to Burnett's career, but that philosophy has earned the respect of the defense. Earlier this week, Burnett was voted as a playoff captain for the second consecutive year.
"He's been everything we've expected," Perry said. "He's a consummate pro. I think it's easy for the young guys to look up and say, 'Hey, this is how it's done,' and trying to be as consistent as we can on the football field and in his play.
"I think that's one of the things that we've talked about and tried to zero in on and eliminate some of the foolish plays that we had last year and just be more consistent, and I think he's done a good job of that this season."
Burnett absorbed the brunt of the criticism last season for the Packers' safeties being shut out of interceptions for the first time in recorded franchise history. Not exactly the results the team was hoping for after handing Burnett a four-year extension prior to the 2013 season.
Last year was the first time Burnett entered a season without a seasoned veteran to work off of. He shared the floor with three-time Pro Bowler Nick Collins and Charlie Peprah his first two seasons before lining up next to Charles Woodson for the first half of 2012.
The defense neglected the safety position in the 2013 draft and paid dearly. Neither M.D. Jennings nor Jerron McMillian proved to be the answer. McMillian was cut in-season and Jennings later nontendered as a restricted free agent. Both are out of the NFL.
It led to general manager Ted Thompson overhauling the position this offseason, but he left Burnett alone. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Micah Hyde and even Sean Richardson were plugged in and have provided upgrades in the second safety slot, allowing Burnett to do what he does best.
Burnett seems to be at home when he's near the line of scrimmage. He's on pace for a career-high 137 tackles in what Packers coach Mike McCarthy considers to be one of his best seasons.
Two weeks ago against Atlanta, he caught his first interception in two years.
"Last year was probably the first year he felt like he had to kind of be that guy," Perry said. "And I'm not so sure that he didn't put too much pressure on himself as opposed to just being who you are and letting the game come to him. Again, I think this year the big thing we talked about is consistency."
Through the ups and downs, nobody has questioned Burnett's work ethic and passion for the game. His fellow defensive backs are stunned by his knowledge of the game. Name a player in the league, and chances are Burnett will be able to provide some kind of scouting report, and at minimum, the college he attended.
It's a hobby Burnett picked up in grade school. He and his friends would call out professional athletes' names during lunch periods and try to be the first to guess correctly. It didn't matter if it was the NFL, NBA, MLB.
"We made a little game out of it, and I guess I stuck with it," said Burnett with a laugh. "I kept studying guys and learning information about guys. Knowledge is power so it's good to read up on other guys and see where they started from, their background and where they came from."
Burnett admits that knowing what college another NFL player went to isn't what ultimately wins on game days, but awareness helps. Each year there's a new influx of players. The script is constantly changing.
What Burnett learned from the likes of Collins and Woodson is you have to be willing to be a teacher and a student. Perry, a former NFL safety, knows it's sometimes easier for a player to talk to a teammate than a coach if there's something he doesn't fully understand.
That's where Burnett's personality gains credibility. There's no hot air with Burnett. He proves you don't need to have the loudest voice to be the best communicator. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers puts his hand out flat, illustrating Burnett's balanced temperament.
"Morgan's confident," Capers said. "With his personality … he doesn't get too rattled no matter how things are going. I think he's playing good football. I like where he is right now, and hopefully he's ready to carry this over."
Last year didn't play out like Burnett or the Packers hoped it would. The defense is ranked 25th like it was last year at this time, but something has felt different about the defense since the bye week. There's quiet confidence and swagger entering the final two weeks.
The Packers preach an even-keeled approach. It starts with their quarterback in the secondary, a defensive leader beyond his years.
"I can't tell you where it comes from," Burnett said. "Just being yourself, being who you are. You can't fake and be something that you're not. That goes back to what I said about my dad — just be yourself and do what you do."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod