FOXBOROUGH -- By Week 6 of the NFL season, Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins had played so minimally on defense that gauging his performance and improvement over the first quarter of the season was difficult.
But the rookie, who was selected 52d overall by the Patriots in the second round of the NFL draft, was always a part of the team's plans. He was a major contributor on special teams and has been used in spot duty for sub packages, but nothing more. That all changed when Jerod Mayo tore his pectoral muscle against the New Orleans Saints.
Collins has been in and out of the team's starting lineup ever since, getting the nod in the last three games against the Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, and Cleveland Browns. But it wasn't until this past Sunday against the Browns that Collins played a majority of the team's defensive snaps.
"It's tough to fill in [Mayo's] shoes, especially for a guy like him," Collins said. "You know, being in this system for a long time. I just gotta come in and do what I can, you know, and just put this team in a position to win. There's not too many guys who can come in and fill his shoes. It's not an easy thing to do."
Collins has 34 total tackles and a pass defensed on the season. Despite having games with only two, four, or six snaps on defense (in five games this season he has played in six defensive snaps or fewer), he's managed to improve and find a role on this team.
"He’s another guy who has worked hard, who has been a consistent guy out there every day in terms of being able to practice, being able to work on his techniques, get better, whether it be on the scout team or defensively or in the kicking game," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "I think his confidence is growing, his overall understanding and anticipation is getting better and his communication with his teammates is improving too."
Communication is the key, says Collins.
"It's all about communication," he said. "If you communicate, things will go well. Like I said, you just got to know what you're doing and know the playbook and it should all fall in place."
He points to the Browns game, one of his better defensive efforts in which he recorded eight tackles overall, but gave up a big touchdown to Jordan Cameron in the fourth quarter.
"It's a pretty decent game. But you know like I said, it's always room for improvement. And I'm just going to work to improve every week."
Collins was targeted six times in the passing game, allowing four receptions, including the touchdown.
"That was just last week's game mistake," he said of Cameron's touchdown.
"Not too much worried about it. Just ready to get this Miami game rolling."
Part of the adjustment for Collins has been acclimating to the New England cold. In college at Southern Miss, he never played in an environment like the one he experienced during the Broncos game, with the weather dipping below 20 degrees and the wind chill in single digits.
"Definitely not used to it," he said. "But it's just one of those things you just gotta look past. You can't let the weather get to you. You just gotta go out there and do your job. Man, it's always going to be weather conditions. Or no matter what it is -- it's raining, sleet, snowing, hail -- you just gotta go out there and do what you get paid to do."
What he's being paid to do has shifted, from a special teams-only role to a sub-package linebacker to one in which he was a central figure against the Browns. What's been expected of him has shifted as well, with Mayo out and his duties increased. The former college safety and defensive lineman relishes all of the tasks he's asked to do and accepts the weight of being the Patriots' top draft pick.
"Whatever position they put me in, whether it's to cover or to play the run, no matter what it is, I'm going to do my best to do it," Collins said. "And I guess that's why I'm here. Whatever it is I'm here to do, I'm going to do it."