Morgan Burnett was only backpedaling. It’s a routine movement for a safety. Burnett has backpedaled thousands of times in his football career.
This was different.
The Green Bay Packers safety felt his right calf tighten as he backpedaled during individual drills last month, a few days after playing the Seattle Seahawks. That was the third week of the season. Burnett hasn’t played since.
“When it happened,” Burnett said, “of course you’re like, ‘Oh, man.’ You’re naturally upset because you’re like, ‘Oh, no, I’m out again.’ But you have to find the positive in things. Being negative isn’t going to help you heal any faster. You’ve got to find the positive in things, and look at it as it always could’ve been worse, and it wasn’t. So you have the opportunity to get back on the field.”
The leader of the Packers’ secondary — a defensive captain for the playoffs last year — has missed five of the team’s six games this season. He’s expected to return Sunday when the Packers travel to the Denver Broncos for a matchup of undefeated teams Sunday night.
What’s at least a little surprising is how much success the Packers defense had without Burnett, a player coordinator Dom Capers calls the unit’s “quarterback.”
The Packers rank atop the NFL in scoring defense, averaging 16.8 points allowed per game. Since Capers was hired in 2009, the highest the Packers ranked in scoring defense at the end of a season was second in 2010. That year, they won Super Bowl XLV.
Burnett said he’s enjoyed watching the defense’s success from afar. The question is how much better can they be with their leader back.
“It’s huge,” Micah Hyde said. “He hasn’t skipped a beat in the meeting room. He’s helped us out a lot. Having him back on the practice field, it was huge. He’s a playmaker. He does it all for our defense.
“It’s just another guy to go out there and make plays.”
Burnett’s return will force the secondary to adjust.
Hyde will move back to the slot after replacing Burnett at safety. In turn, Casey Hayward will likely move back out to the perimeter, where first-round rookie Damarious Randall has been playing. The challenge for Capers and cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. will be ensuring Randall – as well as second-round rookie Quinten Rollins – continues to get snaps.
Hyde’s role at safety hasn’t been new for him. When Burnett missed last season’s game at the New Orleans Saints with a calf injury, Hyde replaced him. Still, Hyde has never played safety for such a prolonged period. He said the nickel position is similar to safety in the Packers’ defense. Of course, his vantage point on the field is significantly different.
“Seeing more of the field,” Hyde said, “and having to make those calls in the back end. When you’re in nickel, you make a lot of calls, but you don’t make the whole calls throughout the secondary, throughout the defense. So I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve had to do over the past four, five weeks.”
Now, with Hyde returning to the slot, the Packers secondary could have the original lineup it was expected to be in when the season began. It would only be the second game this season when the secondary has all its defensive backs available.
As tough as it’s been to watch his defense play without him, Burnett said he has stayed positive. He got extra rest during the bye week and felt good during Monday’s practice. Now, he’s ready to contribute.
“A situation like that happens,” Burnett said, “you just sit on the sideline. You find ways to learn mentally. You find ways to help out and put your input in the best way you can. Just seeing these great athletes on our team play, that’s a fun sight to see. You look for the positives in things. If you look at the negatives, getting down, wanting people to feel sorry for you, that’s not going to help you out.”