As someone that’s been critical of Morgan Burnett in the past, I can take my medicine and acknowledge that the young Packers safety played the best game of his career against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He deserves the recognition.
I’m not alone in this opinion that Burnett put together his best game since becoming a professional. Even ProFootballFocus.com (premium content) graded him out as having the best performance in his first three years in the NFL.
It couldn’t have come at a better time with veteran Charles Woodson sidelined by injury after suffering a broken collarbone the previous week. Sunday marked the first time Woodson has missed a game due to injury since 2008, so Woodson’s absence isn’t something the Packers have been accustomed to experiencing.
“That’s one of our leaders and all us young guys look up to him,” Burnett told reporters after Sunday’s game. “But we really wanted to go out and play hard for him. That motivated us to prove and show that we can go out and step up when one of our leaders go out and get the job done.”
To be sure, M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian had to help pick up the slack created by the void left by Woodson, but it was Burnett who helped take over some of the veteran’s duties.
As noted by Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Burnett played the strong safety position when the Packers were in the base 3-4 defense while resuming his free safety responsibilities in the subpackage defense.
The results were outstanding as Burnett came up with a sack, a forced fumble and recovered fumble all in the same game, not to mention a team-high 11 tackles.
Burnett’s fumble recovery was particularly notable seeing as it took the Packers nearly half a season to accomplish such a feat. The Packers were the last team in the NFL to recover a fumble in 2012.
It happened early in the second quarter as the Jaguars were threatening to move into red zone territory at the Packers’ 22-yard line. Linebacker Brad Jones met running back Rashad Jennings in the hole and forced the fumble while Burnett swooped in to gain possession of the ball and prevent Jacksonville from scoring.
The sack came early in the third quarter on the Jaguars’ first possession of the second half. Getting the call from defensive coordinator Dom Capers, Burnett came unblocked from the left side of the defense and collided with quarterback Blaine Gabbert, actually jarring the ball loose in the process. Gabbert would recover his own fumble, but the Jaguars lost 15 yards on the play and were forced to punt.
“You blitz all the time, but you never really get there,” said Burnett. “It was one of those ones I got there. My eyes lit up. I’m just happy I got him down to the ground.”
The criticism of Burnett has been that he hasn’t been coming up with the big plays he was known for in college as a ball-hawking defensive back. So far he only has four career interceptions, albeit in an injury-plauged three-year stint. But if Week 8 was any indication, the former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket might be turning a corner.
Was Burnett perfect on Sunday? Absolutely not. According to ProFootballFocus.com, he was targeted seven times in pass coverage and gave up four receptions for 62 yards.
But because he came up with the big plays, didn’t allow anyone to beat him deep and was solid in run support, Burnett more than made up for any deficiencies in his game.
“They didn’t surprise us,” Burnett said about the Jaguars. “This is the NFL. You can’t underestimate anyone.
“Blaine Gabbert, give him credit. He did a great job making some good throws. Justin Blackmon made some good catches, and those guys did good moving the ball. But as a defense, as long as you keep them out of the end zone, that’s your main goal.”
That’s what Burnett and the Packers did on Sunday, only allowing one touchdown among three trips into the red zone. If they can continue to do that moving forward, that will be a step in the right direction, both for Burnett and the Packers defense as a whole.