Rookie linebacker Jamie Collins can be head coach Bill Belichick's best tool for stifling Peyton Manning and the record-setting Denver offense. Collins is a true "joker" in Belichick's multiple-look defense.
He will be used in a variety of ways to attack the Broncos.
Dangerous on the Blitz
Collins' blend of size and speed make him a major threat on the blitz. He showcased this skill against the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round.
Belichick routinely used the 6'3", 250-pound rookie to attack running back Donald Brown in pass protection. In this first example, Collins blitzed straight at Brown.
He immediately overpowered the running back and began shrugging him aside.
With Brown swatted away, Collins put a brutal hit on quarterback Andrew Luck as he threw. The obvious result was an incomplete pass.
Collins was the chief weapon in Belichick's pressure packages against the Colts. He can be even more destructive as a supplemental rusher against Manning and the Broncos.
In the fourth quarter against the Colts, Belichick called a cross blitz involving both Collins and fellow linebacker Dont'a Hightower. Collins went first and Hightower wrapped around.
This challenged not only Brown, but also the interior of the Indianapolis O-line. When the protection failed to adjust, Collins broke free to sack Luck for an eight-yard loss.
This kind of blitz, designed to create havoc in the middle, is perfect against Manning. The veteran passer is often a static figure in the pocket, so pressure through the middle is the quickest way to get to him.
The Patriots were very successful blitzing Manning during the second half of their 34-31 win in Week 12. With Collins able to come from any angle, Belichick can use the blitz again to torment Manning.
Collins Has the Lateral Speed to Shut Down the Run
There aren't many linebackers who weigh 250 pounds and can still cover ground as quickly as Collins. It is a trait that makes him an invaluable part of the New England run defense.
A great example came in the second quarter against Indianapolis. The Colts ran a power play with left guard Hugh Thornton pulling around the corner to lead the way for running back Trent Richardson.
Thornton's task was to neutralize Collins on the edge and seal a lane for Richardson. The 6'3", 334-pound rookie guard against a linebacker should have been an obvious mismatch for the Colts.
However, Collins proved too quick and stout for Thornton. The O-lineman attempted to compensate with a cut block.
Collins stayed strong and powered through this block to drop Richardson for a one-yard loss.
The potential impact of the Denver running game can't be ignored. Both Knowshon Moreno and rookie Montee Ball are tough, smart runners.
The Broncos tend to run inside, but they have used stretch runs to attack 4-3 defenses like the one the Patriots operate. They used that tactic to trample all over the New York Giants in Week 2.
With his lateral speed, Collins can play a key role in shutting down the run and the balance it provides Manning.
Skill in Coverage
According to ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss, Collins' ability to morph from front seven attacker to skilled coverage defender is what convinced the Patriots to draft him:
The game has changed. And the chance to groom an ultra-athletic linebacker who is fast enough to play in coverage but powerful enough to be a factor in the front seven as a pass-rusher and run defender was one that was viewed as rare.
Collins was a most unique prospect coming out of Southern Mississippi because he had played three positions -- safety, defensive end and linebacker.
Collins showed his chops in coverage when he snared a fourth-quarter pass from Luck. He began the play in underneath coverage and would bracket tight end Coby Fleener.
As the play developed, the Patriots adopted a quarter-quarter-half coverage shell. It is a familiar coverage concept and one that has frustrated Manning on numerous occasions.
In this instance, it enabled New England to double vertical routes in both seams. The Patriots had a bracket around inside patterns.
Collins worked underneath to create one of those brackets. He was quick and agile enough to trail Fleener vertically before turning to read Luck's pass and intercept it.
Collins' skill in coverage will be a pivotal part of Belichick's schemes. Taking away the deep middle is always vital to stifling Manning.
Collins stays on the field in nickel packages and can fill inside passing lanes in front of receivers like ex-Patriot Wes Welker. He can also help stymie the Broncos' own X-factor.
Collins Is the Best Matchup Against Tight End Julius Thomas
In Week 12, Belichick was certainly helped by the absence of "move" tight end Julius Thomas. The roving, ultra-athletic playmaker is usually a matchup nightmare for defenses primarily concerned with wideouts like Welker and Demaryius Thomas.
Those who have tried to cover the third-year tight end with defensive backs have surrendered big plays. The Kansas City Chiefs tried using premier safety Eric Berry to contain Thomas in Week 11.
However, the 6'5", 250-pounder was a physical mismatch against Berry. He caught three passes for 43 yards and a touchdown.
Belichick will certainly need a plan for slowing down Thomas. Collins is his best bet to take away Manning's X-factor. He has the frame to win the power battle against Thomas as well as the quickness to stay with the dynamic former basketball player.
The Patriots are sure to use Collins in creative ways. If he repeats the level of performance he delivered against the Colts, the rookie linebacker can prove decisive this Sunday.
All screen shots courtesy of CBS Sports, NBC Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.