Nick Collins was tough.
Nick Collins was the defense's "quarterback," in the words of Ryan Pickett.
And now, the Green Bay Packers — their pass defense having gone from the penthouse to the outhouse — will try to defend their Super Bowl championship without Collins, a three-time Pro Bowler and big-play machine.
"It's definitely a punch in the gut," fellow safety Charlie Peprah said of Collins' season-ending neck injury.
"It's the unfortunate part of the game," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "We all know that it can happen on any given play. Nick, he's been a heck of a player for us and it's hard to replace a guy like Nick. We'll have to pick up and move forward."
They'll move forward with Peprah. The Packers were just fine with Peprah in the starting lineup last season, but that was in place of Morgan Burnett. The drop-off between Burnett — then a rookie who was feeling his way through things — and Peprah wasn't severe. In fact, in the short term, it might have been an upgrade.
However, the drop-off between Collins, with 17 interceptions over the past three seasons, and Peprah is enormous.
Last season, Collins intercepted five passes — including his pick-six that gave Green Bay a 14-0 lead in the Super Bowl. According to Pro Football Focus, Collins was targeted with 41 passes last season. Quarterbacks completed 17 of them (41.5 percent) for two touchdowns and a passer rating of 48.6. He missed eight tackles in 20 games.
By contrast, Peprah was targeted with 50 passes during his 923 snaps on defense. Quarterbacks completed 31 of them (62.0 percent) with one touchdown, two interceptions and a passer rating of 77.6. In the 16 games in which he replaced Burnett, Peprah missed a team-high 14 tackles.
"It's really an unfortunate situation," Peprah said. "You never want to assume this role with that type of injury. First and foremost, I just hope that he's going to be OK. I don't know all the details. My prayers go out to him and his family. It's an unfortunate deal. But we've just got to pick up right where he left off. I've got big shoes to fill and hopefully my teammates have confidence in me, and the coaches do, too."
While Collins is a true sideline-to-sideline defender, Peprah's range is limited. With better passes by Jay Cutler in the NFC Championship Game and Ben Roethlisberger in the Super Bowl, he would have given up touchdowns because Devin Hester and Mike Wallace used their speed to get behind Peprah.
With Collins and Burnett, the Packers had two burners in the back end of the secondary to either prevent big plays or prevent those big plays from becoming touchdowns. With similar skill-sets, Collins and Burnett weren't true "strong" and "free" safeties, with Capers using them interchangeably. Now, due to Peprah's athletic limitations, Capers will have to be somewhat more predictable, with Burnett being more of the centerfielder and Peprah playing more at the line of scrimmage.
At least Peprah will know what he's doing, which will be a vital asset with Burnett essentially being a rookie. For all of his flashy plays, Collins was the defense's glue.
"Nick has the most experience so those guys will have to pick it up," Capers said. "I think that's one of Charlie's strengths. We felt that last year once he was in there. Morgan's an intelligent guy. Morgan will have to really pick up his communication. It's not like we don't have someone that's had to do that in the past."
A second option would be using cornerback Charles Woodson essentially as a safety, a scenario they worked on occasionally during training camp and a personnel group they used to start the NFC Championship Game at Chicago. In those instances, it was Woodson pairing with Collins at safety, with Tramon Williams and Sam Shields at cornerback.
Now, it would be Burnett and Woodson at safety, with Williams and Shields at cornerback. In nickel, Jarrett Bush — an adept blitzer and physical tackler but suspect cover guy — would fill Woodson's role as the slot cornerback. Or, because Bush worked extensively at safety during camp, he'd enter the game at safety and Woodson would move to the slot.
However it shakes out, Burnett's going to have to grow up in a hurry. He hasn't been perfect in two games but Capers said he "couldn't be happier" with what he's seen. In Week 1, Burnett finished with 14 tackles. In Week 2, Burnett was the playmaker the Packers hoped they were getting when they traded up to grab him in the third round in 2010. He finished with six tackles, an interception, forced fumble and a critical sack after the Panthers had moved to within 1 yard of tying the game in the fourth quarter.
"There's been a couple things that we've had to correct but he's played very physical," Capers said. "You saw yesterday the tremendous play when he came and wrapped around and caused the fumble on Steve Smith that Charles recovered. You saw the overthrow, where he went down and got the interception on the 49-yard line. He had a sack where his man blocked and he came out of his coverage and went and sacked the quarterback. He's been playing very physical the first two games and he's a bright guy."
And now, Burnett's going to have to go from supporting player to playmaker, and team with his mentor Peprah to help rescue a pass defense that has been torched in the first two games.
"It's all about all 11 guys just being accountable out there," Burnett said. "Charlie is a vet. He has a lot of game experience under his belt. it's helpful to have a vet out there like Charlie. I think everything will be fine."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.