Jamie Collins amassed 16.5 sacks over his final 26 collegiate games at Southern Mississippi. But through his first 26 regular-season games with the New England Patriots, that number stood at zero.
Now it stands at three.
Collins has been called upon to rush the passer 17 times over his last two games. And through the A-gaps he’s hit home. He’s hit home the way he often did as a senior on an 0-12 football team, only two years later, he’s hit home as a chess piece on a 10-3 one.
For the former Golden Eagles “Bandit” outside linebacker, it has been a wait to get to the quarterback. Sometimes it’s been delayed. Sometimes it’s been tried to no avail. Yet it was seen in a glimpse during his rookie campaign in New England. It was seen in the divisional round of the playoffs, at a time when the Patriots called upon it.
The imprint it left was a sign of things to come.
The 6-foot-3, 250-pound off-ball linebacker hovered over the second level as Dont’a Hightower sugared the blitz below him. But as Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck fielded the 2nd-and-8 snap, the rest happened fast. The rest of defensive front shifted. Collins veered through the runway separating the center from the right guard, and Hightower trailed him on a six-man rush.
Then he left his feet.
Collins catapulted over the blitz pickup of then-Colts running back Donald Brown before touching down at quarterback’s feet. An eight-yard loss was the byproduct for the 2013 second-round draft pick and the Patriots.
It was the first and final sack No. 91 would notch during his rookie year. In Week 13 of his second year, he would get his second.
The A-gaps again served as the interstate for him to do so.
Collins loomed 10 yards off 5-foot-11, 230-pound Green Bay Packers halfback Eddie Lacy, who was flanked to the right of quarterback Aaron Rodgers in shotgun. The 2nd-and-15 approach remained a similar one for the second-year Patriot, even though approach of those around him had changed.
Hightower stood over Green Bay left tackle David Bakhtiari, splitting defensive tackle Chris Jones from edge-rusher Akeem Ayers. And on the other end, Collins shadowed defensive tackle Vince Wilfork’s three-technique alignment with left end Rob Ninkovich wide.
But this wasn’t the Indianapolis game from 11 months ago. Hightower wasn’t blitzing. Ayers wasn’t blitzing. Collins was.
Rodgers took the snap and dropped back. New England’s disguised zone blitz dispersed Hightower and Ayers back into coverage, all while Collins drove through the inside lane towards Lacy and bull rushed with a punch.
Lacy punched back.
Collins was sent to the grass after crossing the face of his target. But he managed to recover. He managed to fly back into the play as the Packers quarterback eluded New England’s gatekeepers at the front of the pocket.
The end result was a sack and a loss of six on a play he looked out of.
He didn’t look out of much against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, however. Wearing the green dot in Hightower’s absence, Collins handled communication as well as expectations, finishing with nine tackles just one game after finishing with 13.
But two of those tackles carried more weight than the rest. They were on quarterback Philip Rivers.
On the first, it was 3rd-and-4, and the Chargers’ intentions of passing remained a poorly kept secret. Yet the same could be said of the Patriots’ intentions of rushing the passer. New England assembled with six in the box, with defensive tackles Sealver Siliga and rookie Dominique Easley working as bookends on San Diego’s offensive tackles.
Ayers and Ninkovich stood outside of them, all while Collins and newcomer Jonathan Casillas stood inside of them.
The intentions that followed were deceiving, however. Casillas had no plans of doing what his five frontmates were set out to do.
Rivers took the snap as rookie center Chris Watt and right guard Johnnie Troutman proceeded to block him. And as they did, the former New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers special-teamer made the task a difficult one.
Casillas dropped back from Chargers’ interior. Collins, on the other hand, fired into it unaccounted for.
Rivers could not escape him and went down for nine-yard loss under two seconds later.
The Chargers loss another nine yards the next time.
It was 1st-and-20 and San Diego went four-wide out of “11” personnel. New England, went with seven in the box to counter it.
Ayers and Ninkovich manned their respective edges, and run-stuffing defensive tackle Alan Branch filtered in next to Siliga against the Chargers’ guards. But on this occasion, Casillas stayed at home in the second level, while Ninkovich stayed at home in the underneath.
Yet when Rivers harnessed the snap, the Patriots did respond with a four-man rush. Collins was in the middle of it, and was sprinting through it even before the play was underway.
Although the 6-foot-2, 311-pound Watt saw him this time, he couldn’t slow him.
One move outside and another inside propelled the converted guard onto his heels and Collins into the backfield. He brought Rivers down on the field two seconds later.
Now 13 games into 2014, the 25-year-old linebacker finds his name next to 95 tackles and three sacks. He’s generated pressure on quarterbacks. He’s sifted through space to tackle running backs. He’s traced receivers to the flats. He’s covered tight ends down the hashes.
And by doing more than one thing, Collins has made offenses mindful of many things.
The A-gaps are one of them.