NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
Jamie Collins’ finest NFL performance arrived 17 contests into the New England Patriots season.
It arrived in the divisional round versus quarterback Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts.
For the rookie second-round linebacker out of Southern Mississippi, Saturday’s 43-22 victory marked his most complete showing in a Patriots uniform. He played a complete game in quantity – logging all 66 defensive snaps for the first time in his career. And he played a complete game in quality – totaling six tackles, two QB hits, his first career sack and his first career interception.
But it came down to more than reps or statistics for the 6’3”, 250-pound McCall Creek, Miss., native.
It came down to changing the game.
The 24-year-old Collins was able to do so in all three dimensions of the defense. In turn, he flashed the raw but explosive upside that warranted the 52nd overall draft pick last April.
Head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia needed him to.
Closing the Edge
There’s something to be said for containing the off-tackle run. It’s a task that may sound simple in theory – pursue the outside; square back to the ball-carrier; sway the run lane. Yet when road-grading pull blockers hit the corner against linebackers with a 70-pound disadvantage, it’s far from it.
On a 1st-and-10 with 6:18 left in the third quarter of the Jan. 11 matchup, that sentiment was looming. It was up to Collins – who played a hybrid “Bandit” role for the Golden Flashes – to dispel it.
Combatting a 29-15 deficit, Indianapolis broke huddle in “11″ personnel with running back Trent Richardson behind Luck in the Pistol, tight end Coby Fleener inline off the left side, and wide receivers trips right.
The wideouts, however, were only route-running decoys designed to detract the mix of off- and press-man techniques from New England’s three cornerbacks.
The play’s true intention was an outside run behind the leftward pull blocks of left guard Hugh Thornton and center Samson Satele.
New England’s defense incorporated the 4-2 nickel, zoning the safeties deep and all three cornerbacks on one side of the hashes. The defensive line one-gapped, while second-year weak-side linebacker Don’t’a Hightower monitored the tailback, and Collins monitored the tight end on the strong side.
As Luck handled the shotgun snap and handed to Richardson, it became evident that Collins would not be covering Fleener down the field. The former Stanford tight end was, instead, blocking the outside shoulder of right defensive end Chandler Jones.
So for Collins, it was a race to the C-gap. He had backside containment from left end Rob Ninkovich, and he had interior pressure from Jones and one-tech defensive tackle Sealver Siliga.
But before long, No. 91 would have the 6’3”, 334-pound Thornton greeting him.
Richardson patiently maneuvered behind the impending lead block of his rookie guard. He saw Hightower and Jones closing in his peripherals, and he saw Collins tracing laterally in the forefront.
At that moment, Thornton lowered his right shoulder for the cut block.
The Illinois product barreled down at Collins’ knees. But his efforts could not take all stability out from underneath the agile high school quarterback.
Collins’ right foot planted as his left one pirouetted. He pushed off the O-lineman and kept his eyes up through the maneuver.
Those factors left Richardson in indecision, pivoting off his left foot as three other Patriots swarmed.
With space diminishing and his blocker on the turf, Richardson widened his base and opted to run outside the 20-yard line.
Yet before he could get there, Collins spiraled into his vicinity – back to the ball.
Richardson ran parallel to the field lines in the hopes of buying real estate. But in his voyage, he ran perpendicular to Collins’ outstretched left arm.
It served as a speed bump. Collins hobbled Richardson and was able to wrap both arms around the right foot of the 2012 third overall selection.
He went down for a one-yard loss.
With closing help from Jones, Hightower and safety Steve Gregory, Collins was able to stifle the run outside the tackle box. He did so with reaction, resiliency and uncanny balance.
Collins tallied 20 snaps against the run, according to Pro Football Focus. He recorded an efficient three tackles over that span as well.
Jumping the Pocket
At the NFL Scouting Combine last February, Collins showcased an ability to cover ground. He registered a 4.64-40-yard dash, a 7.10 three-cone drill, a vertical leap of 41.5 inches and a broad jump of 139 inches.
Those measurables painted him to be every part of the 10-sack pass-rusher he was as a senior in 2012. Yet this regular season, Collins was only asked to pressure the quarterback on 34 plays, as Pro Football Focus articulates. From those 34 opportunities, he compiled six hurries and three hits.
His proficiency spiked against Indianapolis.
With the Patriots up seven with 3:07 remaining in the third frame, the Colts embarked in a three-receiver set for 2nd-and-8. LaVon Brazill stood far left for a skinny post, Griff Whalen stood to his right for an intermediate post pattern, and 1,000-yard slot target T.Y. Hilton stood inside for a five-yard in. And out left, Fleener stood for a dig route.
Starting halfback Donald Brown accompanied Luck in the backfield for blitz pickup, hunching behind right guard Mike McGlynn and right tackle Gosder Cherilus.
Conversely, the Patriots operated from a single-high Cover-1 nickel with off-coverage outside and press-bail on the interior. But the real story lied in the 4-2 front; Siliga was prepped to shoot the left A-gap as fellow defensive tackle Joe Vellano shot the right B-gap.
The culmination of those two efforts would merge the pass protection. If effective, they would dictate space for both Hightower and Collins to blitz.
Luck took the snap and dropped back into the pocket to diagnose his reads. The right side of the line took on Ninkovich and Vellano; the left side took Siliga and Jones.
But with Hightower cutting away from the left guard, much of the responsibility rested in the leverage of the 5’10”, 200-pound Brown.
Collins leaned downhill and accelerated in his direction.
As his receivers reached the second level, Luck awaited their cuts. But the seconds allotted to do so were dwindling.
Collins stormed the right A-gap void created by the defensive tackles. At that juncture, Brown bent his knees and dipped his pad level to absorb the collision.
But Collins had different plans.
He wasn’t going to carve around the back; he wasn’t going to push him on his heels. Instead, he was going to jump over him.
Collins leapfrogged Brown’s crunched stature, managing to stay upright through the process.
He found himself four yards from the passer.
Striving to get there in a hurry, Collins propelled off his right foot with his arms flailing.
The mobile Luck lifted his front foot to negotiate.
Yet with no window to throw into and no ground to step into, time was running out. He retreated further, in the hopes of evading the heat-seeking missile.
It was too late. Collins’ four-yard flight landed on Luck’s legs, dropping the signal-caller for an eight yard loss.
He began at the 36-yard line and ended at the 24-yard line. And from start to finish, the first sack of Collins’ NFL career expended all of 2.5 seconds.
As PFF notes, it was one of nine occasions in which the rangy linebacker rushed the passer. He forged pressure on four of those occasions.
Tracing the Pass
Collins played all 13 games as a freshman safety in Hattiesburg, Miss. It wasn’t until his sophomore year that he transitioned to the rush linebacker spot, where he picked off three passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns over his final three seasons.
Some four years removed from defensive back, Collins still shows glimpses of that background. Even though he’s encountered some obstacles in tracking zone coverage, he’s also encountered some triumphs.
He’s covered running backs and tight ends out of the backfield for New England. He’s dropped back to the deep half. He’s made plays on the football.
Collins checked all four of those boxes against Indianapolis. Nevertheless, the significance of one play in coverage stood above the rest.
It transpired with 12:55 left to go in the fourth quarter. The Colts were trailing, 36-22, and were urgently looking to the air on 1st-and-15 inside their own 15.
The offense of head coach Chuck Pagano and coordinator Pep Hamilton assembled in a “posse” set with one back and one tight end. But in a similar fashion as the Patriots offense, Brown motioned over to the left sideline – much like receiving backs Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden often do.
Brown was readying for a quick-option inside route. To his right, Hilton was online and readying for an outside-release streak. Off the right tackle, Fleener was detached and readying for a deep post. And to his right, Whalen and Brazill were orchestrating a “levels” concept back over the middle.
New England countered with the two-up, two-down nickel. But it would only be a three-man rush, as Ninkovich and Collins were called on to defend the underneath and the pipe. And on the weak side, Hightower was called on to defend the flat.
Collectively, it was a Cover-6 zone; a blueprint composed to blanket the third level along with the boundary, conceding only the foreground.
As Luck harnessed the snap, he glanced left to see Brown exiting his quick screen and starting his in pattern. Cornerback Aqib Talib was 10 yards off; Hightower was brushing Hilton. It would have been concise pitch-and-catch, but Luck decided to look elsewhere.
He decided look the other way and saw Fleener crossing the 20-yard line. The 7 route had inside help from Collins and deep half help from free safety Devin McCourty.
And as Fleener angled through the hashes, Luck fired a pass in his direction.
Collins was shadowing closely.
As the pass zeroed in, it began to dive. Fleener repositioned back towards the ball to avert an incompletion. Collins, eclipsing his coverage, had other plans.
Collins ran through the football, catching it in stride at the 39-yard line and tucking it under his right arm.
Collins arced down the right sideline with his teammates functioning as a convoy.
He got to the 20 before he was halted by a familiar foe, Thornton.
From interception to tackle, Collins’ run traveled 20 yards in 3.7 seconds. Four plays later, the Patriots had a 21-point lead. It was a score that held for the duration.
Collins was a vital part in it.
Whether it was his run containment, his pass rush, his pass coverage or even his special teams – Collins had a hand in it on Saturday. And while his utilization has been gradual over the course of his first year in Foxborough, Mass., his utilization is leading him to the right place.
“I think he’s pretty comfortable wherever he is, whether he’s out in space and covering a guy 20 yards downfield, or one-on-one coverage with no help, or whether he’s in line taking on blockers or blitzing or covering tight ends from in close,” Belichick said in his postgame press conference.
“He’s a very versatile athlete that’s smart, works hard, really has a great team attitude,” Belichick added. “I love having him on our team.”