In looking at the Pro Football Focus grades for Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett’s 2012 season, something stood out to me. The longest pass that he was charged with this past season was 27 yards. It’s never good to give up long pass plays and a 27 yarder is nothing to be proud of. I also realize that it may have been one of the two tocuhdowns that Burnett was charged with. I didn’t dig that far, but I’m looking at this from a “face value” perspective.
It made me wonder if Burnett is more valuable to the Packers defense than most would think. Let’s look at this little nugget a bit further.
Of all NFL safeties who played at least 1,000 snaps in 2012, only TJ Ward of the Cleveland Browns’ 22 yard longest pass allowed was shorter than Burnett’s. Pittsburgh’s Ryan Clark played 909 snaps and his longest pass allowed was just 18 yards.
Again, there are a lot of factors that go into these stats such as defensive scheme, the other defensive backs around a player, the team’s pass rush and time opposing quarterbacks had in the pocket, etc. So with that in mind, let’s simply look at the fact that the Packers faced Detroit’s Calvin Johnson twice and Chicago’s Brandon Marshall twice. No small task and one that certainly requires safety help.
Johnson was the league’s best wide receiver in terms of yards in 2012. The argument can be made that defenses were more able to double and triple Johnson because there was no clear #2 receiver opposite him. That’s true, but Johnson is the type of receiver who can still take over and get his yards anyway. To game plan and cover him takes 60 minutes of being aware of where he is at all times. One of the touchdowns that Burnett was charged with came against Johnson. It should have been an interception. Burnett let the ball slip through his hands but he was in perfect position to pick it off at the goal line.
The Packers also faced Chicago’s Brandon Marshall twice and while Burnett didn’t do it alone, he was key in nearly shutting Marshall down in week two. While there were no deep balls to defend in that game, Burnett should be credited for not allowing any to develop also. In the second matchup, Marshall’s longest catch was just 15 yards.
In the two games against the Minnesota Vikings, the Packers didn’t see receiver Percy Harvin but should he remain with the Vikings, Harvin will present his usual set of problems for the Packers secondary in 2013. Burnett will play a vital role in coraling the shifty Harvin.
That’s just the NFC North and there were many other top-tier pass catchers the Packers saw last season. When a team has a lead, opposing offenses tend to throw more and throw deep to try and catch up. Having a steady safety is a must. Burnett’s 27 yard longest pass in 2012 was a big improvement from the year prior. In 2011, Burnett allowed passes of 34, 44 and 45 yards. Whatever deserves the credit, be it scheme or Burnett’s improved play, there was an improvement.
It should be noted that in 2012, Burnett allowed more plays of 20+ yards than he did in 2011 so I am not trying to leave that out. But also consider that this past season, he was playing along side of two rookies at safety as well as one at cornerback in that of Casey Hayward. There is something to be said for both his coverage and ensuring that the others were in the right spot as well.
In looking ahead, 2013 is a season in which many will be watching to see if Burnett can turn the corner and become one of the top play makers in the Green Bay defense. He will also be one of the team’s veteran leaders and especially of the defensive backs with the loss of Charles Woodson. With many still hoping the Packers can replace Nick Collins, Burnett offers the most promise. A player like Collins is very rare and comes along only once in a long while. I don’t see Burnett ever getting to that level, but he does offer the promise of continued improvement and being a steady rock in the defensive backfield.
I gave Burnett a C in my player evaluation and report card post. That is an overall grade that involves more than just pass coverage. I certainly expect Burnett to exceed that mark in 2013 and continue to keep opposing and especially top wide receivers out of the end zone.