Monday’s blockbuster deal instantly upgraded a league-worst Browns’ defense at a huge position of need, making the linebacker corps the clear strength of the unit.
WILL Christian Kirksey has emerged as the unit’s top linebacker, although his development as a consistent playmaker continues to be a work in progress (pass coverage immediately comes to mind). Free agent MIKE Demario Davis, brought in to help shore up the middle of an awful run defense, has not provided the expected impact as he has struggled in both run stoppage and pass defense. Neither player has created a consistent pass rush when utilized in defense coordinator Ray Horton’s blitz packages.
The need for a playmaker that must be schemed for by opposing offensive coordinators was (and still may be) a glaring hole on a unit allowing an NFL-worst 421.5 yards per game.
The Browns’ front office addressed this issue by acquiring a two-time Pro Bowler for the princely price of a third-round compensatory pick.
Kudos are in order.
According to PFF (Pro Football Focus) Collins graded out at an 88.6 last season, the seventh-best grade for all NFL linebackers. Despite allowing several chunk plays due to freelancing this season (more on that later), the fourth-year pro currently sits at an 87.6 this season, good for ninth among linebackers.
The OBR’s Fred Greetham, Jared Mueller, and Andrea Hangst have extensively covered the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the trade, so let’s go to the tape to breakdown the Southern Mississippi products on-field play to project how he will fit into the Cleveland defense.
In a league of gifted athletes, Collins stands out due to outstanding lateral agility, short area quickness, COD skills, and outstanding use of hands.
While the former Patriot stands out in all areas of the game, his performance as a pass defender has been particularly impressive.
“Only five linebackers allowed a lower passer rating into their coverage than Collins in 2015 (79.9), around 25 points lower than the average for LBs. In 2014, it was even better (74.1, fourth-best). So far in 2016, Collins has lowered that mark to 57.1, second-best among all linebackers this season.
Collins is an impact player, and one that has the talent to excel at the most important area of the modern game: coverage.”
Our first play demonstrates Collin's awareness, athleticism, and upper-body strength as he executes a 'blitz-peel' technique while covering a tailback running a route out of the backfield.
The Dolphins' offense is aligned in a 'bunch' formation to the left side of the formation. Teams will run a variety of concepts out of the look as it creates a three-receiver concept, creates natural rubs/picks against man coverage due to the tight alignment of the receivers, and forces the defense to wait on the pattern distribution before 'manning up' in any pattern matching schemes.
Collins is in a stand-up position over the right guard from which he can either rush the passer or blitz the quarterback. The versatile player often lines up on the line of scrimmage over a guard or tackle because his lateral quickness, COD skills, and quick key reads allow him to play the run, cover a tailback, or rush the quarterback while disguising his intentions.
The blitz-peel is a "best of both worlds" technique that accounts for the tailback if he runs a pass route while adding an extra player to the pass rush if the protection scheme keeps the tailback in as a blocker.
Collins' key read is the tailback's action post-snap. If he stays in to block, rush through the B-gap and get after the quarterback. If he releases into a route, guard him in man coverage.
Let's start with the key read.
Collins' charges forward at the snap while reading the tailback's intentions. As soon as he recognizes the pass route, he gets athletic by dropping his hips, widening his stance, and buzzing his feet.
Linebackers are taught to get 'hands on' any receiver attempting to run pass routes in the middle of the field in order to disrupt the route's timing and prevent separation. Collins does a phenomenal job executing his collision with the route runner, disrupting his momentum and almost knocking him off his feet.
From there, the inside linebacker maintains position over the receiver's upfield hip and chases him across the field even though the ball has little chance of going to this check down route as Collin's initial jam likely caused the quarterback to eliminate the route.
Later in the game we see another example of excellent awareness and upper-body strength as Collins' puts a tight end on the ground as he runs a shallow across the formation.
The fourth-year player does not have an assigned man in this coverage. Instead, he will 'zone off' at the snap in the weakside hook area, looking to attack any receivers that cross into the middle of the field or rob intermediate routes if he has no one to cover. Awareness and communication are a must because he must both read the quarterback and scan for any pass catchers entering his area.
Collins' gets into his pass drop quickly, reading the quarterback's eyes as he gains depth to cushion an intermediate throw while staying in position to rally down to the ball on anything thrown short.
Notice how seamlessly the safety and linebacker pass off the tight end's shallow route.
Good defenses constantly communicate what is happening before and after the snap. Because the safety has depth, he must alert Collins to the route by making an "In" call. We see Collins get his head around and violently collision the tight end, putting him on the ground and taking him out of the play.
This is how you protect that short middle of the field.
Another example of Collins' pass coverage prowess comes from the same game.
Here, we see the Dolphins attempt to execute the famous 'Mesh' concept in which two receivers run shallow routes to create a natural rub on the pass defenders.
A key component of the Mesh concept is the addition of a wheel route by the tailback designed to challenge a linebacker downfield. Against most second-level defenders, this is a mismatch that will be exploited at some point.
Because the Patriots are in a two-deep, man-under defense, Collins has the tailback where ever he goes.
Watch Collins' quickly read his pass key, flip his hips, and adjust his angle as the tailback turns upfield. His ability to stay on top of the receiver as he navigates through the X's route (likely designed to create a rub on the linebacker) is a particularly impressive, as few linebackers in the NFL have the speed to stay step for step with a wheeling tailback.
Our final piece of film comes from the Pats' week three victory over the Houston Texans, with Collins notching one of his two interceptions on the season.
The Texans come out in an 'Empty Right' formation with five receivers on the line of scrimmage.
The defense counters with the famous 'Tampa 2' shell in order to flood the underneath zones while providing deep help to both sides of the field.
Image courtesy of Matt Bowen
As the MIKE, Collins is responsible for the deep middle hole, a weak spot that offenses will exploit against the coverage.
Collins' technique is to open towards the strength of the formation, (the left side in this case), gain depth, and read the quarterback's eyes to break on a throw. As many teams will attack a Tampa 2 by running receivers through the seams before bending the routes inside, the MIKE must be alert to vertical threats that require him to squeeze a throw from inside-out.
We see a correct opening and good drop as Collins scans the field for threats. When the #3 receiver breaks his route inside, Collins opens his hips and gets eyes on the quarterback in order to break on the throw. The signal caller does a poor job of holding Collins with his eyes, allowing him to break on De'Andre Hopkins' post route and make the interception.
Great technique and awareness to read the quarterback's eyes.
Defending the Run
While Collins is not known as a downhill thumper, he uses his athleticism, length, and strong-arm to shed blockers and make sure tackles in run defense. When he plays within the scheme and executes his responsibility/ technique correctly, Collins is an above average run defender against both interior and perimeter runs.
Our first breakdown of Collins' ability to defend the run showcases his ability to read keys, fill the hole, and make a tackle in the backfield.
The Texans' run the old-school favorite 'Power' concept in which the front side of the line down blocks, while the backside guard pulls around the corner to block the filling linebacker.
Power will hit different gaps based on the offensive and defense's personnel and alignment. This specific play is designed to hit the C-gap between the tackle and tight end.
The key blocks are the G/T double team on the 3-technique and the pulling guard's fit on the filling linebacker. If both these blocks are made, the play should hit for good yardage.
Notice how tight Collins is to the line of scrimmage on a running down. The versatile player can play as a pseudo stand-up defensive lineman because his quick key read, lateral agility, and COD ability allow him to diagnosis and execute his technique quicker than the average linebacker.
The key read happens very quickly as Collins reads the down blocks and fills, expecting a puller as this is a gap-blocked concept.
The play-side linebacker's technique is to get downhill and blow up the puller as he wraps through the hole . The blocker should be attacked from the outside-in to force the ball back inside to the fill players (interior defensive line and safeties). makes violent contact with the puller in the hole, forcing the ball back inside to the spill players
Collins wastes no time getting downhill to attack the puller, making violent contact in the hole to stop the wrapper in his tracks. His next move is a great example of the type of play that separates Collins from his peers.
After stalemating the guard in the hole, Collins using his excellent lower body strength to stay on his feet and attack the tailback when he hesitates to press the hole. The Patriots' defense received two plays for the price of one as there should be a scrapper coming over top the formation to attack the ball when Collins forces it back inside.
The in the box safety (#23) is slow to flow and would not have made the tackle near the line of scrimmage. The play side safety is coming downhill to make an open field tackle, but even if he gets the ball carrier down the offense is looking at a solid early-down gain.
Our second example looks at Collins' lateral quickness as he plays the same Power concept from the backside of the play.
The Golden Eagles' role is flipped here. Instead of filling against the puller he will scrap over top the formation to make the tackle when the ball is forced back inside. Again, because Collins is aligned as a pseudo stand-up rusher, rather than a traditional "heels at 4 yards) depth, he must quickly read his key and execute the appropriate technique.
The run/pass and play concept/direction is the right guard. We see Collins diagnosis the play concept via the guard's pull (gap-block away), and immediately scrape across with his eyes on the tailback. His entry point into the line of scrimmage is dependent on which gap the offense wants to win, although based on the Pats' alignment it will likely be outside (C or D-gap).
The reaction time is a testament to both quick-twitch muscle and awareness, as Collins matches the pulling guard step-for-step just after the snap. From here, he tracks the tailback looking for his entry point as he knows the force player will kick the ball back inside to him. Collins is able to free flow to the ball without a linebacker in his lap due to his lateral quickness and first step (along with some help from #93).
As the play develops, the C-gap between the tackle and tight end widens, providing a perfect gap to shoot as the left side of the defense has created a wall that serves to kick the ball back inside.
The nose tackle (#90) beats the center across his face and runs the play down from behind, although Collins is credited with half a tackle on the play. This is a situation in which stats do not matter as Collins was in the position to make the TFL regardless of whether the nose tackle won his match-up. He has read his key, executed his responsibility, and made a play behind the line of scrimmage.
On a team devoid of any consistency in rushing the passer, Collins ability to get after the quarterback will pay dividends at all levels of the defense, as opposing offenses must design and adjust their blocking schemes to account for his presence.
“Like Hightower, the Patriots used Collins on the blitz a lot, and he notched six sacks and 16 total pressures in 2015 when rushing the passer—without lining up as a traditional edge rusher.”
A look at the tape confirms that Collins is almost exclusively utilized as an interior rusher, attacking the A and B gaps from his inside linebacker position. Given the lack of disguise in his entry point, his sack and pressure numbers are that much more impressive as teams do not have to protect against loops through the C and D gaps.
Collins' lone sack of the season (he recorded 5.5 sacks in 2015) came against the Houston Texans on a standard third and long situation
The defense is showing an overload to the left side of the offensive formation with three players bunched to threaten two blockers, while Collins is in his standard stand-up position over the interior of the offense line (the B-Gap). Because the offense will need to slide the protection towards the overloaded side, the gifted pass rusher is likely to face a single team block against a guard in space, a great match-up that a defense like the Patriots will ruthlessly exploit.
Like a wide receiver facing press coverage from a cornerback, Collins sets up his pass rush with his feet. Focus on the hard step and shoulder shake Collins utilizes to force an inside lunge by the blocker. Although the left guard does a good job to avoid biting on the fake, he is unable to match the rusher's foot speed or deliver an authoritative punch to the chest plate.
Collins clears the blocker's body by ripping his inside arm through the outside of the body and manages to hit the ball out of the quarterback's hand (the play was ruled as a sack-fumble).
How were the Browns able to acquire an arguably top-10 NFL linebacker for a bargain basement price?
This season Collins has shown an increasingly frequent tendency to freelance by refusing to play his responsibility and using the technique coached up in daily practices, likely leading to a falling out with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, a stickler for detail.
Good team defense relies on all eleven players doing their job, nothing more. When a player does not execute his responsibility (often known as freelancing), the integrity of the scheme breaks down as each individual part is designed to work in conjunction with the other ten.
Collins has seen his snap numbers cut throughout the 2016 season, with his numbers taking a significant drop in the preceding two weeks as his tendency to freelance has led to several explosive plays. The final straw may have been the second play of the Pats’ week 8 victory over the Buffalo Bills, as Collins was the direct cause of a 28-yard rush.
Collins was pulled after the play, ultimately logging a total of only 47 snaps. When an opportunity to acquire an asset for the out of favor backer’ emerged, the Pats jumped on it.
So what exactly happened?
Rewind to the Pittsburg game played the week before.....
The Steelers are running the Counter OF, a gap-blocked concept that uses backside pulls from both the guard and h-back. The first puller will kick-out the EMLOS while the second will wrap through the hole to block the filling linebacker.
Many teams - including the Patriots - utilize a spill technique known as 'block down, step down' to defeat the extra blockers at the point of attack.
The Orange and Brown Report broke down the concept in a previous article:
"When Mingo reads the down block by the EMLOS (usually a tackle or tight end,) he is coached to use the ‘block down, step down’, or BDSD rule. He will attempt to get hands on the tight end to disrupt his block, then follow his hands inside and replace the tight end’s hips at the line of scrimmage, squeezing the gap.
As Mingo squeezes the gap, he will take himself right into the puller coming his way to kick him out. From here he will use a ‘wrong-arm’ technique in which he initiates contact with his outside shoulder into the blocker’s upfield shoulder, followed with a rip through the armpit of the blocker. By attacking the puller’s upfield shoulder the ball should be spilled outside, where a scraping linebacker exchanges gaps with Mingo to become the force man (keep everything inside).
A great wrong-arm will trade two blockers for one defender. At the very least, the defender must create a train wreck in the backfield:
As we can see the wrong arm does not have to be pretty to be effective. If the defender can create a pile-up and force the ball wide (most gap plays are trying to win the C or B-gap) he has executed his assignment.
Watch the play below with the BDSD rule in mind:
#95 correctly reads the down block and squeezes to wrong arm the pullers under the assumption that Collins will do his job by scraping outside to take over as the force player.
As we can see, Collins decides to play hero ball by jumping inside a gap he is not responsible for in order to create a splash play. Doing too much generally leads to bad things.
Because Collins is not in position to play force, the left defensive end is left out to dry and the puller gets a free run on the play side cornerback, and only an athletic play from the right defensive end keeps this run from hitting for more yards.
It only takes one of eleven to break down the run fits and integrity of the defense. Collins failed his teammates as he made the decision to do what he wanted.
Fast forward to last weekend's division game the Buffalo Bills.
Watch the second play of the game. It should look familiar.
Identical play concept (the Counter OF) but different results. Rather than break for a 4-yard gain like the week before, the Bills take this ball 38 yards into Pats' territory.
If Collins replaces the squeezing end instead of doing his own thing (another hero play), the first puller will be picked up by #93, the second puller will be attacked outside-to-in to force the ball back inside, and #54 will scrap across as a free hitter to make the tackle for a minimal gain.
Belichick will not stand for this type of breakdown as we see by the speed of the trade.
Browns' fans should hope that a change of scenery motivates their shiny new toy to play at the elite level he is capable of. A fresh Collins with little knowledge of the scheme will still pay immediate dividends on third down as he can be used to rush the passer or blitz the quarterback with little prep. The question of long-term viability remains. Will the Browns' front office be willing to lay down the type of cash Collins and his agent has reportedly demanded? This eight game trial run will go a long way towards answering yes or no.