For safety Morgan Burnett, the statistics are impossible to ignore. For outside linebacker Clay Matthews, the stats don’t come close to telling the whole story.
No matter how they’re evaluated, though, there’s no denying the impact these two are having on the Packers defense in 2011.
Burnett is in just his second season, after playing only four games as a rookie due to a knee injury, but he’s rapidly developing into the same type of playmaker he was in college, which the Packers need in place of the injured Nick Collins.
He recorded 14 interceptions in three seasons at Georgia Tech and, now, in his first seven games in the NFL, Burnett has four more picks, including his first two-interception game last week in Chicago.
The term “ball hawk” gets tossed around often with defensive backs that create turnovers, but Burnett’s position coach, Darren Perry, believes in Burnett’s case it’s not just a convenient label. Some players are simply different when it comes to reading and reacting to the ball, and Burnett would seem to be one of them, in part because he’s a former high school quarterback.
“I do think there’s a lot of truth to that,” Perry said. “Sometimes it’s unexplainable, because guys just have an innate ability to come up with the football.
“Some guys just have a mindset that when the ball is in the air, it’s theirs.”
Burnett, who is the first Packers player with four interceptions in his first seven games since safety Chuck Cecil turned the trick in 1988, showed that type of mentality on his first interception in Chicago, when he sprinted across the field to intercept an overthrown ball intended for Roy Williams.
Cornerback Charles Woodson said after the game he felt Burnett’s range has been underrated since he arrived as a third-round draft pick in 2010, a selection General Manager Ted Thompson traded up to get. Perry agreed that observers will notice his range the more he’s manning the “centerfield” position Collins frequently played.
Burnett’s interceptions haven’t been as acrobatic as some of Collins’, but he’s been swooping in for overthrows with regularity and making quarterbacks pay.
“I think probably playing in the shadows of Nick, people have underestimated his ability to get to the football and close on it,” Perry said.
“He’s trying to play with a certain attitude that safeties have to play with in this league to command respect. There’s a hunger. I think some people questioned his toughness, and I think he took that as a personal challenge to disprove people.”
Burnett has earned a defensive game ball from the coaching staff in two of the first three games this season, but he’s reminded in every film session that he’s far from a polished player.
That’s what’s so exciting for the coaching staff about Burnett, because this Sunday will be just his eighth game, completing his first full half-season. There’s no way in that short a time he’s shown his full capabilities.
“I’m starting to understand things a little more, but it’s still early in the season, and I still have a lot of growing and a lot of learning to do,” Burnett said.
Matthews, meanwhile, is putting his own learning to good use, even if it’s not showing up in the form of the glamor statistic – sacks.
With just one sack through three games, Matthews is far off his pace from a year ago, when he had six in the first two weeks. After being drafted in 2009 in the first round – another player Thompson traded up to acquire – Matthews has reached double digits in sacks in each of his first two pro seasons.
But any member of the Green Bay coaching staff will tell you that Matthews is playing, perhaps, the best football of his career right now. He’s defending the run better than he ever has, with at least one tackle for loss in each game so far, including four last Sunday in Chicago.
Outside Linebackers Coach Kevin Greene said Matthews’ run-stuffing comes directly from his extensive film study. Even Matthews said he knows “the plays are coming before they’re even coming.”
“His vision is so much better and he’s more of a student of the game now than he’s ever been,” Greene said. “He knows the odds of a specific play being run based on who’s in the game and how they’ve lined up at the line of scrimmage and where they are on the field.
“He sees it, he recognizes it, and he plays to what he sees on film.”
Matthews did that all day against the Bears, reading the counter runs coming his way and beating the pulling guard with his quickness. Greene, one of the best 3-4 outside linebackers in NFL history, said the type of recognition and instincts Matthews is developing takes most linebackers six to eight years to discover.
His one sack was actually kind of a “cheapie,” when in Week 2 he ran Carolina quarterback Cam Newton out of bounds and was credited with a sack. That play didn’t come close to matching the impact he’s had on other key stops, namely at the goal line on the final play against New Orleans and inside the 5-yard line on a fourth-down tackle of Newton.
Matthews would like to get more sacks, to be sure, but he’s also absorbing regular double-teams when he rushes, particularly on third-and-long when the Packers have usually rushed just three. Greene said the percentage of snaps in which Matthews must engage two and three blockers is up over last year, and he’s rarely seen him left one-on-one.
“You just have to stay persistent,” Matthews said. “That’s what I think makes a great pass-rusher, is the fact that you’re relentless from the first play through the fourth quarter, and that’s when you come up big, figuring they’re going to slip up at least once and you’re going to get home and put a demoralizing hit on the quarterback.”
Those plays will light up the stat sheet and the crowd, but it’s not worth changing his all-around game to get them. He’ll stay patient and let things take their natural course.
“As long as I’m making my impact plays, whether that be in the run game, the pass game, covering someone, I’m doing my job,” Matthews said.
“My time will come.” Additional coverage - Sept. 30