No single player on the roster received as much ire from the Packer faithful as Jerron McMillian, the fill-in safety that found himself beat in coverage and grasping air on tackles. As is the case after any emotional loss, social media lit into the poor kid Sunday night, coupled with the oft-repeated claim, “If we only would have had Casey Hayward and Morgan Burnett playing, we would have won that game.”
Naturally, the emphasis was placed on Burnett, who would have taken the place of McMillian in the lineup. He’s the starter, and he’s a an immediate upgrade over what we had in there, it was claimed.
First of all, I agree with that last sentiment. I really don’t like hammering on any young player thrown to the wolves in a high-pressure game against a superior opponent. I watched Jeremy Ross get saddled with the majority of the blame for the loss in last season’s playoff game from some quarters, though I still have to wonder how a punt return fumble somehow accounted for a quarterback rushing for 181 yards.
But, let’s be honest. McMillian had a rough game. He’s shown a lot of promise in his time in the Green and Gold, but he’s not ready for that kind of prime time responsibility. Indeed, the veteran Burnett would be an upgrade over him, and I am eager for his return. Putting McMillian back into a support role (and, perhaps, against more middling competition than the NFC favorites) will do wonders for him. Personally, I’m going to root for him to silence his critics the rest of this season.
However, I do not agree–in the least–that Burnett would have made a difference in the final score of the game against the 49ers. And, I’ll tell you why.
The Packers, with Morgan Burnett in the backfield, were shellacked against the 49ers last January. They played a more traditional dime defense against the 49ers in that game, and were wiped out on the ground. Burnett’s skills at free safety didn’t do much to stop the 323 rushing yards San Francisco put up against them.
So on Sunday, the Packers made the best adjustment they could, schematically, to play the 49ers differently. Instead of simply putting a spy on Colin Kaepernick as they tried to do in the playoff game, they kept 6-8 bodies in the box and forced Kaepernick to stay in the pocket and beat the Packers with his arm. As you could see by the final score, the Packers fared much better with this strategy. I’d even be willing to call it a winning strategy.
Except they didn’t win. The Packers compensated for containing the run by playing a loose zone in the secondary Without instant pressure on Kaepernick, we were treated to a display of Rodgers-esque accuracy and velocity. Yes, kids, Colin can throw as well as run. And when the middle of the field is left wide open, someone is going to catch the ball.
In this game, Burnett would have upgraded the wrapping up, for certain. He’s a solid tackler and you wouldn’t have the whiffs that McMillian gave us. But Burnett would have been playing the same zone defensive assignments that McMillian was, and Anquan Boldin would still be catching the ball 14 yards deep. Maybe we drastically reduce Boldin’s yards-after-catch numbers, but it doesn’t change the fact that he continually got open, no matter how the Packers adjusted.
As the Packers continue with their season, and face more traditional defenses, Burnett’s skill set will become more valuable than playing a zone. In the end, no matter how Packer fans want to rationalize it, a missing safety wouldn’t have fixed that final score.
The truth is–as hard as it is to face it–that the 49ers are a better team than the Packers, and our best game isn’t good enough to beat their best game at this point, three games running. Trust me, I wouldn’t trade my quarterback or head coach for San Fran’s any day. I don’t like Kaepernick or Harbaugh and am starting to hate the 49ers the same way I hated the Cowboys back in the early 1990′s.
But they are the team the Packers need to learn how to beat. Period.
And that’s going to take more than just a safety.
C.D. Angeli is a lifelong Packer fan and feature writer at CheeseheadTV. He is the co-host of the weekly Packers podcast Cheesehead Radio and is the good cop running PackersTalk.com. He loves it when people point out his articles are too long. Follow him on Twitter at @TundraVision.