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To survive loss of S Nick Collins, Green Bay Packers will need Morgan Burnett to step up

Sep. 20, 2011
 

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Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett (42) tries to tackle Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith (89) in the first quarter during Sunday's game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette

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There’s no sugarcoating the loss of safety Nick Collins for the Green Bay Packers’ season.

It’s akin to tight end Jermichael Finley’s season-ending knee injury in 2010 in that the Packers are losing one of their playmakers. And it might turn out worse.

With Finley last year, the Packers at least had another game-changer in the passing game in Greg Jennings, plus a deep enough corps of receivers behind him to make up some of the difference.

Collins is a different story. He’s one of the best safeties in the game, a three-time Pro Bowler who at age 28 still was playing at that level. The Packers don’t have a Jennings-type player alongside him and aren’t as good at backup safety as they were at receiver last year.

This isn’t saying their Super Bowl hopes are dead. The one player they can’t win the title without is quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews probably falls in that category, too.

But it does mean there’s reason to wonder whether they’ll be enough like the No. 2-ranked scoring defense they had last year to win it all again.

In considering the likelihood, it’s worth noting an observation defensive coordinator Dom Capers made to reporters just before the start of his 26th NFL training camp. He said that building a strong NFL defense requires two or three difference-makers and a bunch of starters who know and play their roles well. Coincidentally, he at the time was praising backup safety Charlie Peprah, who’d been an assignment-sure role player in helping the Packers win the Super Bowl last season after Morgan Burnett blew out his knee in Week 4. Peprah most likely will replace Collins.

With Capers’ observation in mind, it’s easy to rank the Packers’ most important defensive personnel. Matthews heads the list, followed in order by Charles Woodson, then probably B.J. Raji, with Collins and cornerback Tramon Williams neck and neck for the No. 4 spot.

By that measure, Capers still has his top three playmakers.

So assuming Peprah replaces Collins, Capers has a smart and experienced quarterback for the secondary. But Peprah lacks Collins’ abilities to run and play the ball, and he’ll be alongside Burnett, a second-year pro who has played in only six NFL games, instead of Collins, who could change games with interceptions (17 in the previous three seasons combined) and provide a blitz security blanket for Capers as the last line of defense.

But keep in mind also that the Packers’ pass defense in the first two games hasn’t been anything like what it was while winning the Super Bowl last year. In 2010, the Packers ranked No. 1 in the NFL in defensive passer rating (67.2 points); this year, they’re No. 13 (92.9 points). They’ve also given up the most passing yards (800) in the league after two games.

It’s also true this two-game performance has to be put in context. In the opener, the Packers faced New Orleans, which has a premier quarterback in Drew Brees and as talented an offense at the skill positions as any in the NFL. Then last week they played the NFL’s early-season phenom, Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton. The Saints are going to put up big numbers almost every week, and Newton topped the 400-yard mark passing in his first two games. These were no chumps.

Still, this has to raise some red flags for the Packers. To win a title, they’ll have to hold up against the league’s best quarterbacks, and you can bet Capers and coach Mike McCarthy are concerned. Brees, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, Detroit’s ascending Matthew Stafford and Philadelphia’s dangerous Michael Vick are among the quarterbacks of NFC contenders, and Tom Brady and Philip Rivers loom among the passers in the AFC.

The issue is whether Capers can absorb the Collins loss without significantly scaling back his play calling. In that sense, losing Williams would be worse. Woodson’s role as a playmaker in Capers’ nickel defense is contingent on Williams, and to a slightly lesser extent Sam Shields, holding up well in one-on-one coverage against the outside receivers. Without Williams, as we saw last week when he didn’t play against Carolina because of a bruised shoulder, Capers doesn’t have the coverage talent to play Woodson in that higher-risk role.

Losing Collins isn’t the same in that way, but Capers almost surely will scale back his playbook now that he doesn’t have Collins’ ball skills and range as his last line of defense. The degree to which he scales back then depends on Burnett.

The second-year pro has excellent size (6-1 3/8, 209 pounds) for a safety and good ball skills. His speed (4.51 seconds in the 40 at his Pro Day workout) is good but not of Collins’ caliber (4.37 seconds coming out of college), and Burnett lacks Collins’ knowledge and experience.

Capers will need time to see to what degree he can trust his safeties without Collins, who had played in all 39 games Capers has coached with the Packers. Last year, Shields came out of nowhere to upgrade the No. 3 cornerback job and allow Capers to open his playbook for Woodson. If the Packers are to win big again, they’ll need Burnett to do the same this year.

pdougher@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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