Morgan Burnett is 11 games into his NFL career, not a conventional milestone but still an opportunity at the bye week for the second-year veteran to take stock of what he's learned and what comes next.
While his time with the Packers has been brief, it has been saturated with a wide range of experiences. The safety has already proven his ability to recover from a major injury, flashed his playmaking skills and shown his versatility. Burnett started the first NFL game he played in and also felt the sting of watching Super Bowl XLV from the sidelines. When he has played, Green Bay is 10-1.
Burnett has opened every game in his career, and in those contests he has totaled 68 tackles, four interceptions, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. It has been a promising start, with Burnett showing the range to roam across the secondary, a willingness to hit and sure tackling.
"He's off to a fine start, and there isn't anything he can't do," said secondary-safeties coach Darren Perry. "All he needs now is to be steady and consistent. That's how you become great, do the same things on a consistent basis, play that way week in and week out. He has the natural ability to do that."
Burnett has shown resiliency, bouncing back from the torn ligament in his left knee that ended his rookie season after just four games, to reclaim his starting spot in training camp. He has played with a heavily wrapped broken right hand each of the last two weeks, after fracturing it in practice prior to the Week 6 game vs. St. Louis. The black bandage that covered a plastic brace completely hid his fingers.
Essentially, Burnett is still in the midst of his rookie season, but with the advantage of spending the majority of 2010 with his position group preparing weekly as if he'd play. He is part of every defensive package, and Burnett also appears on punt-coverage for special teams. The former third-round pick is a work in progress as an NFL safety, yet, paying dividends now with expectation of bigger things in the future.
"At this point, I'm still learning whenever I'm on the field," he said. "I was out for so long last year and it was hard, but I also learned a lot. That time studying and being in the meetings was important. It also gave me a great appreciation for just being able to play and trying to make the most of my opportunities."
Burnett was off to a solid start in '10, joining teammate Nick Collins as only the second Packers rookie to open the season as a starter at safety since Chuck Cecil in 1988. In four starts, Burnett had 15 stops and an interception. His first interception came two games into his NFL career in a 34-7 victory over Buffalo.
This season, the consistency that Perry has been preaching has been evident in the young safety's play. Burnett had a team-high 14 stops in the opener, including swarming over the top of the wall of Packers defenders to help stop Saints running back Mark Ingram at the goal line as time expired. At Carolina the following week, he had a sack, a forced fumble and an interception.
In Chicago, Burnett had a career-high two interceptions, and he followed that contest with his first career fumble recovery with a 10-yard return vs. Denver at Lambeau Field.
Burnett received high grades from the coaching staff against the Falcons with seven stops. Even with the broken hand against St. Louis, Burnett posted 10 tackles and knocked the ball loose from Steven Jackson, though the fumble was recovered by the Rams. Burnett was also awarded the team's coveted "Big Hit" award for a jarring tackle on running back Cadillac Williams.
"You are only as good as the next play, so what you did the week before isn't that important," said Burnett, who recorded four stops at Minnesota. "You are always judged on the next game. I keep working on the little things: my technique, my pad level, reading the offense."
Since Collins was lost for the season in the fourth quarter at Carolina with a neck injury, Burnett has been listed at free safety after previously playing on the strong side, but Burnett said that's only semantics in Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers' system.
"The two safety positions are interchangeable, but there is no replacing Nick," Burnett said. "Coach Perry keeps telling me to be the best I can be. If I do that, I'll be fine. He says don't try to do too much."
Collins has been such a playmaker since arriving in Green Bay – including the postseason the seven-year veteran has recorded 22 interceptions and returned five for touchdowns – it would be easy for Burnett to feel tempted to raise his level of play.
"When you lose a top player, guys can feel like they need to do more and they can try to do too much and end up hurting the defense," said Perry. "Maybe it's that way more for a young player. It's something we've talked about. All we need is for everyone to play within the parameters of the defense."
Burnett ranks second on the team with 53 tackles (38 solo), has five passes-defensed and is second on the club with three interceptions. He also has a team-high two forced fumbles, a sack and a fumble recovery. Burnett is the only Packers defender to show up in every statistical category this season.
"Even last year, I noticed he's one of those guys that the ball just seems to find," said cornerback Tramon Williams. "Charles (Woodson) and I joked about it back in training camp. I told Charles I had nine interceptions last year with the playoffs, but I might not get that many with Morgan back in the lineup."
It's a skill Woodson has perfected throughout his career, having recorded his 35th interception in 85 games with the Packers by picking off two passes against Minnesota. Burnett's career is just taking flight, but four interceptions in his first 11 games is a healthy pace.
"Some guys just have an ability to come up with the ball," said Perry. "It's not an accident, and it's not luck. Morgan's always hustling. That's what it takes."