You know, it seems like just last year the Packers lost a critical member of their backfield in the first couple of games, with a lot of uncertainty about how well they could replace him. In 2010, it was Ryan Grant (on the offensive side of the ball, of course). This year, it is Nick Collins.
Collins is a great story overall, and I'll be honest: he's another one of those players that I was highly critical of early on who grew and matured to prove me wrong. In his rookie season, he garnered a lot of undeserved praise for what was statistically a great year for the passing defense. However, this was due to the fact that the rushing defense was perhaps one of the worse in franchise history, and the Packers were rarely tested through the air, as teams needed only run through the sieve that was the Packers defense.
So, when Collins was actually tested in subsequent years, he struggled. It seems like ancient history to us nowadays, but we forget that following the 2007 season, Collins was actually on the verge of being benched. I wrote an assessment, which sounded as much like a eulogy as anything, back in May of 2008.
Nick Collins, who played alongside Sharper in 2005, has struggled to regain the promise he had as a rookie that year. Some of the high hopes were distorted, in my opinion, as the Packers were rarely passed on that year...in fact, the number of passing plays against the Packers in 2005 were among the lowest in franchise history.
Since that time, Collins has struggled in his role and struggled in pass coverage, especially when asked to defend a player one-on-one at the line. Collins is generally a strong hitter, but despite starting the last three years, many fans and media types are quietly noting that second-year man Aaron Rouse may supplant Collins this year, despite being another prototypical strong safety.
As we know, Collins had his breakout season in 2008 and has continued to blossom into a dynamic player. Certainly, we offer every prayer we have for his continued health, and hopefully, continued career in Green Bay.
But, it is that blurring of the safety positions that make Collins' injury concerning, and far more so than the injury to Burnett last year. Ted Thompson has long eschewed the traditional free safety/strong safety role that we saw played to perfection in the 1990's: LeRoy Butler was the hard-hitting, close to the line SS, while Eugene Robinson covered his back as the instinctive free safety who always took the shortest line to the ball.
So, when we really saw Collins take his licks in 06 and 07, I petitioned for a free safety. A true free safety who could come in and be Eugene Robinson, and allow Collins to play to his strengths as a strong safety. But, contrary to my wishes, Thompson and McCarthy put Collins into the free safety role. And he struggled.
But when the light finally clicked on for Nick, he glowed...and overall, he's grown into a player that has managed to literally bring the abilities of both positions in one package. He's been a ballhawk, while also continuing to bruise runners who make it past the first layer.
But you see, here's the problem. When Burnett went down last year, Collins was still there. Nick has developed into the kind of player who makes the other guys around him better. When the carousel finally settled on Charlie Peprah, it was a great pairing that helped lead to a Super Bowl, but once again counted on a blurring of the traditional roles of the safeties.
Peprah played solid football, but was far from flashy. As he settled into his role over the course of the 2010 season, he sort of became the quasi-free safety, the one that held the last line of defense, the security blanket covering the critical risks taken by Dom Capers in his exotic blitz schemes. But it was that steady play that allowed Collins to branch out, knowing that the backline was well covered by Peprah. We saw Collins catapult himself into that risk-taking player, able to wheel around to make plays. Yes, Collins missed some tackles along the way and had to chase down some receivers he took some bad angles on, but he could rest assured that Peprah was covering his back.
So, what "role" was Collins playing last year? If Peprah was the last line of defense, wouldn't that make him the traditional free safety? Yet, it was Collins who was making the picks...often the role of the free safety. All this illustrates two things. 1) There is a definite blurring of the traditional roles of the safety in the Thompson/McCarthy/Capers defense. And 2), this is why I was gravitating towards keeping Peprah in a starting position over flashy Morgan Burnett this year.
Mind you, I have nothing against Burnett. I find him to be somewhat of the James Jones of the defense at this point in his maturity. As we saw in the Carolina game, he can make brilliant plays one quarter, than completely blow the coverage in the next. But Collins has the ability to elevate the game of players around him, like he did with Peprah last year. I figured he would do the same with Burnett.
But, in both games this season, we've seen Collins and Burnett fooled into giving up big plays by biting on play fakes: plays that last year, Peprah was usually in position to stop. In a way, we have had two Nick Collinses playing safety: both hard hitters, both ball hawks, and both susceptible to miss a tackle or blow a coverage.
Which is what makes the idea of Peprah substituting in as "free safety" for Collins mind-blowing. Peprah even talks about it today in the Press-Gazette:
“I’m just trying to go out there and be solid, makes some plays, run the defense and stay within myself and just contribute that way,” Peprah said. “I’m not going to go out there and make things look the way Nick made it look. But I’m going to get the job done and I’m going to do it right and make plays."
The thought that Peprah would come in and try to do the opposite job of what he did last year seems a bit disjointed, especially because he was so good in that solid, last-line-of-defense role. And, Burnett has been spectacular at times, but has made his share of mistakes along the way, too.
Common sense would dictate that you put Peprah back in his role from a year ago, and move Burnett in to Collins' "free safety role". This would seem to give Burnett the range to make big plays, but also to make a mistake and know he's covered from behind. In other words, it isn't Peprah's pressure to replace a three-time Pro Bowler, it's Morgan Burnett's.
But, if there is anything we have learned along the pathways of a Ted Thompson/Mike McCarthy/Dom Capers-team, its that nothing works out the way you would imagine it should. Chances are high that Capers is going to mix up something in his mad scientist laboratory that we're not even thinking of now. Remember when Brandon Chillar went back to play safety in the "Big Okie" defense?
However, rest assured: without a player like Nick Collins, who transcended the traditional safety roles and elevated the game of the players around him, there's a lot resting on the shoulders of Charlie Peprah and Morgan Burnett. And, the ability of the Packers to replace injured starters last year was the difference between a Super Bowl and a top-ten draft pick this past spring.
Collins may be a bigger cog to replace than any of the guys that got hurt last year. All eyes in the secondary come Sunday.
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