When the Packers traded up 15 spots to select safety Morgan Burnett in the third round of the 2010 draft, they knew they were getting a sure tackler. In three seasons at Georgia Tech, Burnett racked up 235 tackles, just five short of ranking in the top five in school history.
Burnett hasn’t disappointed. He led the Packers last season with 125 tackles (99 solo) and was second on the team with a career-high 137 (97 solo) in 2012. Although Burnett’s totals are down this season after he missed five games because of a calf injury, Burnett ranks 25th (and second only to Minnesota’s Andrew Sendejo in the NFC North) among NFL safeties in run-stop percentage, according to Pro Football Focus.
As the last line of defense, safeties by definition are counted on to bring down ball-carriers and prevent big plays. What goes into being a top tackler?
“It takes desire and attitude,” Packers safeties coach Darren Perry said. “There are a lot of people that can be really good tacklers but it’s a matter of want-to … If you’re in the right frame of mind, you can become a great tackler. Morgan has made up his mind that that’s what he wants to be and he works extremely hard at it. He thinks he can make every tackle.”
Burnett, a 26-year-old native of College Park, Ga., spoke with Press-Gazette Media this week about his role in the Packers’ defense and more:
You were sidelined by a calf injury for five games (Weeks 2 through 6) this season. How tough was it to have to sit and watch?
You work so hard with your brothers and you see them out there and you want to get out there and contribute. So it’s tough. But you find the positive in things, find ways to help out and get better. You sit back and see things from the sidelines and give guys tips here and there.
How do you feel about the defense having carried the offense for most of this season, when usually it has been the other way around?
As a whole, guys are playing together, communicating and trusting one another. Football is the ultimate team sport and you have to look out for one another and take care of one another. And that’s what you see on the field, guys playing for each other more so than themselves.
What does it take to be a good NFL safety?
You have to be good with your eyes, and you have to be great with your technique. You’re the last line of defense so if you get sloppy with your technique and tackling, it’s a touchdown.
You led the team in tackles last season. What goes into being a good tackler?
Tackling is about want-to. You have to want to go in and tackle a guy, you gotta want to get him down. You gotta have the right approach. Tackling is about attitude, you gotta want to do it.
Is tackling becoming a lost art? Do CBA limitations on contact during practice make it difficult to work on it?
There are ways you can practice your tackling without taking guys to the ground. We do a ball-security drill every day, we do a tackling drill every day. It puts you in position for the different ways you have to tackle. There’s open field and there’s filling in the alley.
How do you defend against an outstanding receiver such as the Lions’ Calvin Johnson?
It takes a group effort. When you’re going against a great player like that, you have to trust one another and know it’s going to take a collective effort to try to stop a guy like that. And you have to be sound in your technique. Any little slip and he makes you pay for it.
You run an annual football camp for kids in Georgia (Clayton County). How important is it to you?
I’ve been doing it for four years, it’s getting bigger and bigger each year. It’s a free youth football camp, we get sponsors and I donate myself. It’s just to give kids something to do in the summer time. They get a chance to meet some of my teammates and some of my buddies around the league. It’s a fun experience, the family comes out and we have a great time.
Some are saying kids shouldn’t play football because of the risk of concussions and other injuries. Is youth football still a positive thing?
I think so, especially with the Heads Up program, teaching the proper way of tackling. I think today’s youth will be fine; more so than when I was coming up. We didn’t have guys teaching you the proper way to tackle, keeping your head up. I think with today’s youth, they do a good job of teaching them at a young age about the proper way to tackle and everything. We have the technology and the concussion protocol to keep the kids safe.
Will you go see “Concussion,” the new movie about the NFL and its brain-injury issues?
Oh yeah, I’ll see it because Will Smith is a great actor. Anything dealing with football grabs my interest, and then just history, period, with me – I’m a big-on-history kind of guy, I love documentaries. I think it will be a good movie to see. I’m a Will Smith fan, so I’ll definitely check it out. It looks good.
What do you like to do away from football to relax?
Relax? I’ve got two boys at home. I’ve got a 6-year-old and a seven-month-old. So I play with them, hang out with my family. Me and my wife (Nicolette) and the two boys (Morgan Jr. and Logan), we go to the movies, out to eat, we just try to find stuff to do as a family. I think that’s kind of what keeps me sane, when I’m around my family. They just treat me as Dad.