A year ago, the Green Bay Packers were one of the hardest hit teams in the league by season-ending injuries, but were fortunate in that they lost only one important player, tight end Jermichael Finley, and didnít lose a single player at a critical position.
Of the 15 players that ended last season on injured reserve, only six are still with the team and only three are really playing.
But Sundayís victory over Carolina served as another reminder of how one injury at the wrong position or to the wrong player could derail the Packersí chances of repeating as Super Bowl champs. Give Cam Newton oodles of credit for turning the leagueís worst team into one thatís capable of beating anyone. Heís a one-man team. He gained 457 of the Panthersí 475 net yards.
But the Packers are no different than the other 31 teams in the NFL: Theyíre perilously thin on good pass defenders.
They werenít the same defense Sunday without Tramon Williams. And, now, theyíve lost Nick Collins for the season.
When the Packers lost Charles Woodson and Sam Shields to injury in last yearís Super Bowl, they played on their heels the rest of the way and barely avoided blowing a game that they had led, 21-3, thanks to their sheer will and Dom Capersí mercurial mind. And Sunday with Woodson filling in for Williams at corner and Jarrett Bush moving into Woodsonís rover role in nickel, Capers reacted much the same way. He shifted into survivor mode, played more zone than usual, and got through the game.
But thatís not a recipe for long-term success. And there might not be any recipe for replacing Collins. Although he wasnít a cornerback, Collins gave Capers a lot of options because of his unusual skill set as a safety.
Secondary minus Williams
Woodson still made his big plays with two interceptions, but heís an average cover guy. His two picks were bad passes by Newton, and Woodson knowing where to go. Physically, as far as a guy who can sit there and hold a receiver at the line and then run with him down the sideline, Woodson canít do that anymore. Thatís why they put him at the line of scrimmage in nickel or on a slot receiver where he doesnít have to press or on a tight end where he doesnít give up speed.
In turn, Bush doesnít have Woodsonís nose for the ball in that slot position. Heís not a playmaker. And while he might not be as big a liability as he once was in coverage, teams still seem to find him for at least a touchdown a game.
Something else to consider is this: When a team plays aggressive man-to-man and not as much zone, when itís forced to play zone, it tends to make stupid, aggressive mistakes. That could partly explain why the Packers seemed to have an unusual number of blown assignments.
Last year the Packers lost Morgan Burnett, and Charlie Peprah filled in more than adequately. Burnett is a much better player now and that might help compensate for the loss of Collins. But the drop-off from Collins to Peprah will be huge. Peprah will tackle and play smart, but he doesnít challenge the ball and heís not Nick Collins.
Collins was a ball-hawk. He was one of the best cover safeties in the league, one who was able to eliminate the tight end in the seam. And they had him on kickoff coverage Ė thatís how good a tackler he was. Thatís a loss that could be a game-changer for the Packers.
The run defense
The Packers played the run as well as you can play it. Their run fits were textbook all game long. The Panthers have two pretty good backs, and they gained 18 yards on 11 carries. The horses up front, no matter who was in there, werenít getting knocked off the line of scrimmage and that allowed the inside backers to scrape flat down the line and not have to avoid piles. In addition, the Packersí outside backers have done just an excellent job of setting the edge.
Another reason the Packers play such good run defense even with only two down linemen is that they have nine good athletes standing up and they all tackle. If they didnít have secondary people who tackle, that nickel wouldnít work as well as it does. Thatís another reason why Collins will be missed.
Chad Clifton isnít helping them any in the running game. All Clifton had to do on that third-and-1 is hang on to his guy because Bryan Bulaga had washed his guy down the line of scrimmage, but Charles Johnson ate Clifton up. Clifton is adequate at best in the run game, and his pass blocking has slipped. He used to be a wall out there. Now, there are too many plays where you see him on skates.
Starks vs. Grant
Ryan Grant just doesnít make anyone miss. Thatís another difference between James Starks and Grant. Starks can turn a 3- or 5-yard play into 10 or 14. Grant is strictly a straight-ahead runner. You donít see a burst; you donít see any wiggle; you donít see him make guys miss. On Starksí 40-yard run that might have been a 7- or 8-yard gain with Grant.
Finley has to make that catch in the end zone. You watch the Sunday night game and see a 35-year-old tight end, Tony Gonzales, make an even tougher catch for a key touchdown. Finley talks about being the best; the best make that play.