FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — When the season started, the New England Patriots’ top pick in last year’s draft barely got on the field on defense, playing just six snaps when the opponent had the ball in the first two games.
That didn’t mean Jamie Collins wasn’t making progress. Coach Bill Belichick liked what he saw from the linebacker in practice and on special teams.
On Saturday, fans got to witness Collins’ development. Appearing in his first postseason game, he played a key role in controlling Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, playing all 66 defensive snaps in a 43-22 win.
Collins got his first NFL sack and interception, led New England with three quarterback hurries and two tackles for a loss, and was second with six tackles.
Not to the coach who drafted him out of Southern Mississippi with the 13th choice in the second round. The Patriots had traded their first-round pick.
“Jamie’s been playing well for us all year,” Belichick said. “His role in the kicking game has been solid and he’s played more and more for us defensively.”
Adept in pass coverage as well as in stopping the run, Collins is likely to be on the field plenty when the Patriots (13-4) visit the Denver Broncos (14-3) in the AFC championship game Sunday.
He might never have gotten his chance if outside linebacker Jerod Mayo had stayed healthy.
Collins played just 52 defensive snaps in the Patriots’ first six games. But Mayo tore a chest muscle in a 30-27 win over New Orleans and Collins started nine of the other 11 games. In his last five games, he’s played 67 percent of the defensive snaps.
After inside linebacker Brandon Spikes went on injured reserve before the AFC divisional-round game against the Colts, Collins was in for every defensive play in the most important game the Patriots have played this season.
“It was kind of a difference” to be in the playoffs, he said, but “every game is the same to me. Just go out there, do what you have to do and, hopefully, it comes out on the positive side.”
In the second half, Collins stopped Trent Richardson for a 1-yard loss, sacked Luck for 8 yards and got down the field to intercept Luck’s pass 23 yards from the line of scrimmage then return it 20 yards to set up the Patriots’ final touchdown.
“I’ve seen it ever since he’s gotten here,” linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “He’s probably one of the most athletic guys on the team. … 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.”
Collins was an all-purpose star in high school, playing quarterback, receiver, safety and outside linebacker. He played all 13 games at safety as a college freshman before shifting to linebacker the next year.
Patriots safety Steve Gregory thinks Collins’ experience in the secondary has helped his development.
“Seeing the game from a different level,” Gregory said. “Understanding the pass game a lot more playing safety, just understanding covering wide receivers and things like that and how guys run routes and combinations of routes. … I’d imagine it helped out a little bit.”
Once Collins joined the Patriots, Gregory knew the draft pick wasn’t wasted.
“Jamie’s worked hard all year,” he said, “trying to understand what we’re trying to do as a defense, fine-tuning his skills, working every day at just becoming a better football player. He’s physical. He’s big. He’s fast. He does a lot of things well so we’ve seen a lot of that production pay off here from the hard work that he’s put in.”
The Patriots will need his pass coverage skills Sunday against Peyton Manning and his wealth of receivers, especially with tight end Julius Thomas back after a knee injury sidelined him for New England’s 34-31 overtime win on Nov. 24.
“If you just watch, (Collins) has been getting better week by week,” safety Devin McCourty said. “I think he has a lot more big games in him and we’ve just got to keep it rolling.”
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