Consistency remains key for Burnett, safeties
Conventional wisdom says Morgan Burnett and the rest of the Green Bay Packers' safeties have taken a significant step forward in 2014.
However, the goal isn't to stop there.
The fifth-year veteran is coming off his best game of the season and the rotation of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Micah Hyde has been an upgrade over Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings - neither of whom currently is on an NFL roster.
Burnett shined in an 11-tackle performance in last week's 42-10 thrashing of the Minnesota Vikings, creating his first turnover since a 21-13 win over Chicago on Dec. 16, 2012. The Packers are 7-0 during the regular season when Burnett forces a turnover.
The best part? Burnett didn't have a missed tackle, according to Pro Football Focus. In fact, he's only had two this season.
His 48 tackles in five games puts him on pace for 153 and started a domino effect through the rest of secondary, which is ranked seventh in NFL pass defense (208.8 yards per game) after finishing 24th last season.
Darren Perry still won't gush. The Packers' safeties coach wants to see more of it.
"I think he can be better," Perry said. "We want to keep improving and getting our level of play up to where we have an opportunity to win a championship. That's going to require each guy doing his job week-in and week-out and improving from week-to-week. It was a good performance, but we're looking for more."
The Packers went all of last season without a turnover from the safety position. They have two in five games after Burnett forced a fumble of Minnesota running back Matt Asiata and Clinton-Dix intercepted Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford last month.
Burnett won't rip on his former teammates. He credits Jennings as a "good player, very smart player" and sees play-making potential in all his comrades, but it seems Clinton-Dix and Hyde have allowed him to play more like himself.
Instead of having to move Burnett around, the Packers often have positioned him near the line of scrimmage in more of a strong safety role. What defensive coordinator Dom Capers likes is all three safeties are versatile enough to play both spots.
Burnett says he hasn't noticed if he's been playing in the box more, but he's certainly been more visible there.
He squelched a first-quarter drive for Vikings last Thursday when he made back-to-back stops of tight end Chase Ford and receiver Jarius Wright near the line of scrimmage.
"I think Morgan has been ascending in his play all year," Capers said. "His game against the Vikings was his best game. You saw the production he had. I thought he was very active. I think he's tackled well. I think with our safety situation, we have a more physical presence than what we've had."
Clinton-Dix and Hyde have helped. Hyde, a converted-cornerback, has started all five games, but Clinton-Dix actually has played more defensive snaps (252-207). They both play in the dime subpackage and have combined for 42 tackles, a sack and Clinton-Dix's pick.
Perry still views both plays as "very young" and "very raw" in their first NFL season at the position, but he's been pleased with how the rotation has worked out so far.
The important thing will be to maintain the consistency as the season progresses.
"Obviously, it's a much better start, but again we haven't done anything yet," said Perry when asked if this year's collection of safeties have been more consistent than 2013. "We're 3-2. We haven't won any divisions or anything like that. We have a lot of football ahead of us. There's still a ton of room for improvement."
Burnett gets it. There's still 11 games to be play, starting with Sunday's encounter with the Miami Dolphins. Last year, the Packers' run defense was among the best in the NFL through the first seven weeks of last season before collapsing late.
At the very least, the safety group seems well-positioned to distance itself from last year's struggles with both tackling and coverage.
"We've got a long way to go," Burnett said. "We're not going to get complacent – that's one thing we're not going to do – and we're going to keep trying to find ways to get better. We're not comparing last year. That's a different team. This is a new team with a new identity."
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