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Confidence, Aggressiveness Have Been Key to Landon Collins’s 2016 Improvement

How Landon Collins has become one of the top defensive players in the league

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at New York Giants Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

2016 has been a breakout year for Landon Collins. He leads the team in tackles, interceptions, and sacks -- the only player in the league to lead a team in all three categories. The Giants would probably prefer if he wasn’t leading the team in all of those, ideally with other stepping up on the defense. But with those stats Collins is compiling, he’s having a much improved season from his rough rookie year.

Collins had some ups and downs during the 2015 season. There were times when the Giants saw the playmaker they thought they were getting when they traded up to the top of the second-round of the 2015 NFL Draft, but other times he looked like an overwhelmed rookie lost in coverage. But even through some struggles, Collins was a consistent presence on the field, which at the least gave him some experience and helped him develop. He started all 16 games in his rookie season and played on 94.55 percent of the Giants’ defensive snaps, which led the team -- he was the only player above 80 percent. He’s on the same path this season with 99.24 percent of the defensive snaps played, though he’s joined by Jason Pierre-Paul and Janoris Jenkins who are also over 90 percent played.

It’s clear Collins has vastly improved in 2016 -- ESPN’s Matt Bowen named him the best up-and-comer at safety -- but what exactly is he doing better? First, we’ll take a look at where he struggled in 2015.

Much of the issues from Collins came in pass coverage. He was known as a physical player with good instincts and that came out against the run. But since 60 percent of offensive plays on average are pass plays, his coverage abilities were exposed.

Early in the season, the Giants moved Collins around a little bit, testing out where his skill set meshed with the rest of the defense. Because of the personnel the Giants had last season, they liked to use three safeties on the field, but those other safeties weren’t the ideal players to have at the position either. When paired with someone like Brandon Meriweather deep in the secondary, another player not known for his coverage skills, Collins was often asked to guard tight ends and slot receivers. These plays put him closer to the line of scrimmage, which was great against the run, but was an easy target for opposing pass plays.

In this play from a Week 8 game against the New Orleans Saints, the Giants have three safeties on the field with Craig Dahl and Meriweather back deep. Collins is lined up at the line of scrimmage on the top hash across from Ben Watson. At the snap, Watson broke for a drag route, but hesitated just slightly, which froze Collins in coverage. Watson continued his route and had plenty of separation to catch the pass and turn up the field.

For a player known for physicality, Collins didn’t always know when to use it. Lined up against Kyle Rudolph of the Minnesota Vikings (bottom hash on the screen), Collins tried to press the tight end off the line, but was late engaging, which let Rudolph already turn into his route. After Rudolph got through the contact, he gained leverage to get behind Collins for a big gain.

Tight ends were a problem for Collins like they were for the rest of the Giants’ defense. Last season the Giants were 27th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA defending opposing tight ends. This year they’re 18th, which isn’t great, but for the Giants feels like a minor miracle.

Even when Collins had the right play lined up, it appeared he didn’t completely trust what he was seeing, which turns possible stops into big gains for the offense.

Take this play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 9. Collins is lined up about seven yards off the line of scrimmage to defend the intermediate middle of the field. Collins dropped back into coverage and switched his eyes between Jameis Winston and Adam Humphries, who he saw breaking across the field. Collins then turned his hips into Humphries before rotating his body to run to the sideline. Collins knew exactly what was coming, he read the quarterback and the receiver the whole way, but his slight hesitation turns what should have been an easy jumped route and interception into a decent gain for the Buccaneers.

We’ll look at one last play from 2015, against the Miami Dolphins in Week 14. Collins is aligned deep on the screen’s top hash. Before the snap, Jarvis Landry ran motion in the backfield and Collins knew immediately there was going to be a swing pass to the receiver and he broke in towards Landry. But once Collins got close, he was indecisive about being aggressive and charging Landry or taking out the blocker. The Giants have two defenders for a blocker and a runner, but because of Collins’s hesitation, Landry gets to the outside of his blocker for a gain of 16. Collins had the play read from before the snap, but couldn’t make the play.

There’s a sense of trust now, in both his ability and the scheme, in 2016 and that aggressiveness is coming out more naturally. Past of this is clearly due to the upgrade in talent around the safety this year, too. Collins is asked less to press up against a receiver at the line of scrimmage, which allows him to play his more natural deep safety position. With that comfortability, Collins is able to trust himself more and it’s leading to plays getting made.

Here’s Collins against the Saints in Week 2. He’s lined up on the top hash in a two-deep look. At the snap, he read Willie Snead breaking across the field from the left and through the middle of the Giants’ zone. He broke immediately and delivered a hit as soon as Snead caught the ball for a minimum gain.

Collins might never be the player the Giants want trailing slot receivers or tight ends off the line of scrimmage, but he’s started to improve in that area too. Against Washington in Week 3, Collins lined up against Ryan Grant and while the receiver got separation in the route, the pass from Kirk Cousins was hung up just a little too long and Collins was able to make a recovery to knock the ball away.

Through 10 weeks, Collins has four interceptions, which is third in the league. Last season Collins had just one on an underthrown ball from Sam Bradford. His interceptions this season have come in different ways, but they all come from Collins being somewhere around where the ball was going. We can argue the luck of the two deflections against Case Keenum and the Rams, but Collins’s two other picks have been examples of his instincts and aggressiveness.

Against the Eagles, Collins is at the top of the screen to defend the deep part of a double stack. After the snap, Collins fought off some contact from tight end Trey Burton, as he kept his eyes on Carson Wentz. As Wentz started to get pressured, Collins read the quarterback was going to the flat and broke on the ball. Wentz floated the ball high and right into the hands of the waiting safety.

The interception against Andy Dalton this past week was another case of Collins making the right read to put himself in the position to take advantage of a mistake. Both wide receivers on Collins’s side of the play break early and the safety knows the only route he needs to worry about is the tight end up the seam. He broke over to help over the top and ended up in the right spot to catch an overthrown pass.

There’s still some work that can be done to further improve Collins’s game, but he’s been light years ahead of where he was during his rookie season. If he continues to improve, Collins could be on his way to being one of the best young safeties in the league --though some might say he’s already there. Either way, his development has been a welcome part of a defense that’s been hitting many of the right buttons in 2016.