GREEN BAY – There are no highfalutin catchphrases in Morgan Burnett’s and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s vocabulary.
The Packers’ two starting safeties don’t operate like that.
They’re not interested in making summertime assurances that will be swallowed by September. Instead, they use words like “accountability” and “trust” to guide their on-field actions.
No, it doesn’t make for a grandiose headline, but they’re genuine in their motivations. The pundits can rank them however they so choose among the NFL’s top safety pairings.
What matters to Burnett and Clinton-Dix is attaining the confidence of the other nine defenders on the field. Based on their two seasons together, they’ve certainly earned it.
“We want to be recognized as top players on the back end as safety duos, but we don’t really like to speak on that,” Clinton-Dix said. “We just let our talent do the talking and you get what you get.”
The praise has been pouring in for Clinton-Dix all offseason, beginning with Head Coach Mike McCarthy stating he’s “as fine a safety as there is in the National Football League” in the wake of a promising sophomore season.
The former first-round pick has played nearly every defensive snap since taking over as a starter in Week 7 of his rookie season, tallying 212 tackles with 15 passes defensed, four sacks and three interceptions in 32 regular-season games.
Clinton-Dix was tossed into the leadership fire early last season when Burnett missed five games with a hamstring injury. It was a tough spot considering Burnett often serves as the lead communicator and quarterback of the secondary.
His absence forced Clinton-Dix to be more vocal in his declarations. He worked to develop chemistry with Burnett’s replacement, Micah Hyde, and the two helped stem the tide until the veteran safety’s return after the Week 6 bye.
“It’s Ha’s third year, but he plays and acts like an eight-year vet,” Hyde said.
Once Burnett was back, Clinton-Dix slid back to centerfield and went on to lead the defense with 117 tackles in addition to three sacks and two interceptions.
Like his rookie season, the 6-foot-1, 208-pound safety amplified his game in the playoffs in recording eight tackles, four passes defensed and an interception in two games.
His three postseason interceptions in four games already have him tied for seventh in Packers history. Not bad for a third-year player who won’t turn 24 until December.
“I don’t know if I’ve had a player come in and play as much as Ha has in these last two years with the production that he’s had,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “Was he perfect? Absolutely not, but out of a lot of the guys I’ve been around, he’s probably the one who’s come in and had the most production his first couple years.”
Similar in stature and personality, the two safeties became fast friends upon Clinton-Dix’s arrival. Clinton-Dix believes the brotherly bond he shares with Burnett has factored into his progression.
Chemistry is a critical component to defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ scheme. It’s been a staple of his zone-blitz system going back to the mid-’90s when Perry worked in chorus with Carnell Lake during their time together in Pittsburgh.
The two safeties played seven seasons together, helping bring the system to life under Capers (the Steelers’ coordinator from 1992-94) and later Dick LeBeau.
The Packers hope similar success follows Burnett and Clinton-Dix, who settled the secondary for the first time since Nick Collins’ career-ending injury in 2011.
“They’ve worked together now for a couple years, which I think is really important,” Capers said. “They’re interchangeable. They can both come down and play the run. When you play these physical running backs, we went through a period there where we didn’t quite match up the way we wanted to, but I like the way we match up there.”
A third-round pick in 2010, Burnett is one of the most knowledge players on the defensive side of the ball. He’s started all 86 career games that he’s played (including playoffs), learning from the likes of Collins and Charles Woodson.
While capable of holding down centerfield, Burnett’s tackling ability and aggressiveness have been an asset to the run defense over the past six seasons.
The selection of Clinton-Dix in 2014 – the first time the Packers drafted a safety in the first round since 1993 (George Teague) – lessened Burnett’s burden and freed him up to do what he does best.
McCarthy said earlier this offseason that the evolution of NFL offenses has resulted in tight ends and safeties becoming prominent positions on the football field.
The defense’s improvement during the second half of the season can be traced back to Burnett’s improved health and Clinton-Dix’s maturation.
The Packers’ comfort in the duo is one reason they have such high hopes for their defense in 2016. How everything translates on the field will be determined this fall.
“We can be good as we decide to be,” said Burnett of the defense. “That just goes with putting in hard work. Around this time, everyone talks about what they’re going to do. I’m just a guy putting in action, putting in work. It’s still early for us. Still getting our feet under us.”
Burnett and Clinton-Dix won’t make any proclamations about what’s next. On a personal level, Clinton-Dix simply wants to be more vocal and step up as a leader like Burnett.
If the accolades keep coming in 2016, don’t expect Burnett and Clinton-Dix to gloat about it.
“That’s really our ultimate goal is to be maybe the best tandem in the league,” Burnett said. “It’s easy to talk about it now, but we have to continue to hold each other accountable and push each other to reaching that goal.”