When Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett was lined up next to a series of replacement-level safeties in the 2013 season, his weaknesses were magnified by the poor play of those around him. M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian, and company proved to be an abysmal group of safeties, and that year the unit was poor in both run support and in pass coverage.
In 2014, help arrived in the form of Micah Hyde and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, players who were at least competent at the free safety position (and who became more and more competent as the year went along). With a decent partner on the back end, Burnett was free to help out more in the run game from his strong safety position, and he put together an excellent performance against the run.
By any measure, Burnett was a very good run defender last year. If you favor conventional stats, consider that he led the Packers in total tackles with 105, as well as pitching in with a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.
If you're more a fan of the advanced grades and stats, though, Burnett's impact against the run becomes even more apparent. Burnett's +11.4 was the highest run support grade (from Pro Football Focus) of any NFL safety in 2014 and made him the highest-graded run defender on the Packers roster last season. Consider also Burnett's run "stop" numbers, which look at plays that constitute a "loss" for the offense. Burnett made a stop on 8.3% of all running plays while he was on the field, second only to Kam Chancellor among safeties. When lined up within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, Burnett's stop rate was 10.8%, good for a tie for fourth in those situations. Finally, Burnett's tackling efficiency (rate of missed tackles to tackling opportunities) put him in the top 10 safeties both overall and in the run game alone.
All of these numbers are meant to explain that the Packers' run defense should be substantially improved from last week if Burnett can play on Sunday. With him being a limited participant in Wednesday's practice, he seems on track to return in time for the game against the Seahawks and a bruising, productive running back in Marshawn Lynch.
With Sam Barrington out for the season and Nate Palmer taking his place, the Packers will need all the help that they can get in the run game. Thankfully, they should get a shot in the arm this week if Burnett returns to the field. After all, the Packers cannot reasonably expect to win this week if they allow nearly 200 yards on the ground like they did to the Bears last Sunday.