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Jamie Collins could draw most difficult assignment yet vs. Broncos TE Julius Thomas

Posted by Erik Frenz  January 16, 2014 07:00 AM

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the most intriguing, and important, matchups in the AFC Championship game will be between Broncos tight end Julius Thomas and Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins. Interesting, then, that Thomas didn't play and Collins was minimally involved (23/90 snaps).

Two 250-pound athletes -- one 6-foot-5 (Thomas), the other 6-foot-3 (Collins) -- will be running into each other frequently, whether it's in the running game or the passing game. Their battles through the air, however, will likely be the focal point of the matchup.

tale of the tape collins thomas.pngThomas has been key to the Broncos' success all season. Collins has recently emerged into a bigger role in the Patriots' defense with the loss of Brandon Spikes. If Collins finds himself covering Thomas on Sunday, it would be the most difficult matchup he's faced thus far.

"He's a dynamic football player," safety Steve Gregory said of Thomas, "and they move him around, they put him in a lot of different positions. He can create mismatches. He’s big, he’s physical, he’s fast, he runs good routes, has good hands, he can block in the run game, so it’s not like when he’s in there, it’s only a pass. You know, he can do multiple things, and at a high level."

Thomas has been nearly equal parts pass-catcher and blocker. He ran a pass pattern on 485 of his 993 snaps, and was either pass-protecting or run-blocking on the other 508 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

Collins -- and the Patriots defense as a whole -- will have to be ready for all of it, but the spotlight on Thomas may shine brighter in the biggest moments.

"He's been a big target for them in the red area with his size and his catching ability, his athleticism," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said yesterday. "He's a hard guy to match up with."

In the regular season, Thomas had 14 receptions and eight touchdowns in the red zone, both of which were good for third-best on the team, only narrowly edged out by wide receivers Wes Welker (19 catches, 10 touchdowns) and Eric Decker (15 catches, nine touchdowns). Thomas' background in basketball -- he played power forward at Portland State -- makes him an even bigger threat in smaller spaces.

Collins could be responsible for covering Thomas all over the field, though. Quarterback Peyton Manning does a great job of getting Thomas involved at all levels of the defense, but primarily not deeper than 20 yards downfield. According to Pro Football Focus, he has caught 21 passes outside the left numbers, 30 passes over the middle and 20 passes outside the right numbers.

But, as we saw from Collins against Colts tight end Coby Fleener on Saturday, he is more than capable of coverage outside and over the middle.

Few defensive backs could have defended this fade route much better than Collins. His hips turned with impressive quickness, and he never lost a step on the tight end, despite being locked in on him in press coverage.

From there, his ball-hawking skills were clear as day; he located the ball in the air, and put his hands up. With another inch or two on his leap, he could have intercepted the pass. Instead, his hands got in the way of Fleener's and the ball fell incomplete.

Collins' experience as a defensive back makes him uniquely qualified to cover a pass-catching threat like Thomas. Even with all that working in Collins' favor, Thomas is more athletic than Fleener. Collins is quite the athlete himself, though, according to his teammates.

"He's probably one of the most athletic guys on the team," linebacker Dont'a Hightower said, "and it didn't take him long to kind of get a grasp on what was going on and for him to make plays like that everybody else might be surprised, but we see it every day and for him to come out and have the game that he did, I wasn't surprised at all."

Photo via NFL Network
He'll need all of that athleticism to cover the collegiate basketball star, but if you were going to grab a blank canvas and draw up the perfect player to match up with Thomas, you might end up with a portrait of Collins.

He recorded a 4.62-second 40-yard dash, a 41.5-inch vertical jump, a 139-inch broad jump, and a 7.1-second three-cone drill, all of which ranked among the top five linebackers at the combine. With that in mind, should anyone have really been surprised by Collins' athleticism?

In every sense, Collins had his coming-out party against the Colts. He hardly played earlier in the season, but has become more involved in the defense in recent weeks. He didn't play more than 45 percent of the defensive snaps in a single game until Week 14, but has been involved in at least that many snaps in each game since then.

This was the first time Collins' impact was truly felt, and they'll need Saturday to be the second time if he's to be matched up with Thomas.




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Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »

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