Like much of the New York Giants defense, All-Pro safety Landon Collins was having a down year in 2017.
Heading in to the season, it had to be expected that he would take something of a step back after setting a historically lofty standard for his play in 2016. What nobody expected was Collins, and the rest of the Giants dominant defense, taking as severe a step back as they did after carrying the team to an 11-5 record.
The first evidence was shoddy tackling on the perimeter, which kept the defense on the field — in addition to an inept offense that couldn’t stay on the field. But as injuries and losses piled up, cracks (then fissures) began to appear in the defense.
Eventually the Giants were hemorrhaging yards and points to the likes of the C.J. Beathard quarterbacked winless San Francisco 49ers, and enough was enough. After that embarrassing loss, the Giants held a team-wide “brutally honest” film session. Though Collins couldn’t be accused of “quitting”, he did have some plays called out, and resolved to never have that happen again.
Over the last two weeks he certainly seems to have returned to form, notching 30 tackles, an interception, and a pass defensed in the two games since the film session.
Let’s take a look at how he’s played in these last two games.
Giants vs. Chiefs, Q1 - 12:06 - third-and-6
We start on a third down, with six yards to go to pick up the first down. The Giants are playing with two down linemen (Jason Pierre-Paul and Avery Moss) and four more players standing at the line of scrimmage (Ross Cockrell, Olivier Vernon, Akeem Ayers, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie), threatening to rush — the alignment intended to create confusion and complicate protection reads.
At the snap four players, JPP, Vernon, Moss, and Ayers, rush while the rest drop into coverage.
Landon Collins is playing safety in what appears to be a Cover-2 shell, defending the deep half of the field (on the defensive left). In fact, he is in man coverage on the running back, and starts cheating up toward the line of scrimmage just before the snap.
They Chiefs use tight end Demetrius Harris to clear out space underneath for running back Charcandrick West, with a deep corner route. The route effectively acts as a “rub” route, getting in the way of Collins as he makes his way down in coverage on the running back. The concept works and there is plenty of green field in front of West, but two things disrupt the timing of the play. First, Harris slips as he tries to deliver a chip block on JPP, throwing off the timing of his route. Second, Moss and Vernon run a stunt inside, which the Chiefs fail to pick up. Moss badly beats the right guard, and gets a free run at Alex Smith.
With Smith scrambling, West works back to the sideline. Unfortunately for them, Collins quickly recognizes the play and easily works his way around the tight end and covers a tremendous amount of ground to make the stop for just a yard, well short of the first down.
The highlight of the play is Collins’ impressive awareness to quickly and correctly diagnose the play, as well as his ability to make it. But it is also an impressive play from the defense as a whole that should remind us just how good they can be.
Giants vs. Chiefs, Q4 - 12:26 - third-and-4
Next we go to the ground for another third down stop by Collins.
Once again the Giants opt for speed instead of mass on this third down, with Vernon, Moss, and JPP as the only natural defensive linemen on the field. Linebackers Akeem Ayers and Calvin Munson are also close to the line of scrimmage, while Collins is on the line of scrimmage, lined up at the 9-technique (wide of the tight end’s outside shoulder).
The Chiefs call an inside zone in an attempt to exploit the Giants’ spacing and light front. They only need four yards to convert the first down, and that should be well within Kareem Hunt’s ability to pick up.
Collins apparently recognizes the play and takes a step and a half to the side moments before the snap. Between the blocking sliding away from him and the extra width, Collins has a good angle into the backfield, and gets an excellent jump off the snap.
Ayers does a good job of coming up and taking on the block of the left guard to clog the running lane. Collins doesn’t need the help, though with Hunt’s ability to break tackles it doesn’t hurt. He is in the backfield so quickly that he is already wrapping Hunt up as he approaches the line of scrimmage, with Ayers shedding his block to secure the stop.
Giants vs. Redskins, Q1 - 5:25 - third-and-1
Moving on to the Thanksgiving night game against the Washington Redskins, we have a third down play early in the game.
Washington runs a play-action pass, faking an outside zone run to the offensive left. But rather than run the ball, which the Giants would have defended well, they layer three flat routes on top of each other.
The Giants are in man coverage across the board, leaving seven players to come down-hill and defend the run.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie recognizes the play-action and comes off the back side pursuit to pressure Cousins as he rolls out to throw. He has his choice of RB Samaje Perine behind the line of scrimmage, Jameson Crowder at the first down marker, or Josh Doctson at the 45-yard line -- all running toward the right sideline.
Crowder starts the play in the slot to the left of the quarterback, with Darian Thompson in coverage.
For a fraction of a second Cousins looks down the field toward Josh Doctson, who is being covered by Janoris Jenkins. That instant of hesitation is all the clue that Collins — who is in coverage on Perine — needs that the ball is going further down the field. He quickly comes off Perine and reverses his field to combine with Thompson to make the stop.
Washington was able to pick up the first down, but the combination of pressure from DRC and the impressive display of quick processing and athleticism by Collins (and a sound tackle from both safeties), makes sure that the elusive Crowder can’t make a big play.
The play had a chance of going the other way — the pressure from DRC forced a badly off-target throw from Cousins, who put the ball far behind Crowder. Had Thompson reacted a hair faster at the snap of the ball, he could have been in position to either knock the ball down or make the interception. However, considering that he has to react to a player who already knows where he is going, and navigate a crowded middle of the field, it’s tough to really criticize Thompson here.
Giants vs. Redskins, Q3 - 4:25 - first-and-10
Finally we have an example of a play that I actually had to work to find.
It says something about the respect that opposing offenses have for Landon Collins that he is rarely targeted in coverage. It’s one reason why I was expecting his numbers to dip slightly this season.
Here we have an example of him in coverage, helping the pass rush get to the quarterback.
The Giants start the play with five players up on the line of scrimmage, and it appears as though they are going to bring pressure on first down with man coverage across the board under a Cover - 1 shell. Instead, they are in a more complex coverage. Janoris Jenkins is in tight man coverage at the top of the screen, locking down the deep route on that side of the field.
Elsewhere, the Giants look to be in zone coverage.
The Redskins call a pass play that uses a scissors concept over the middle to exploit what they are expecting to be an aggressive man coverage defense.
The play design has tight end Niles Paul and slot receiver Jamison Crowder running routes that cross each other, with the intention of forcing either Landon Collins (who is in coverage on Crowder) or Kelvin Sheppard (who is in coverage on Paul) out of position.
However, the Giants have disguised their zone scheme well and the two defenders execute well, simply passing off the crossing players to one another.
It is a bit difficult to see from the All-22 angle (and at game speed), but from an end zone camera you can see that Cousins is keyed in on the crossing routes. His first read is for Crowder to get separation on Collins, then Paul when he is passed off. However, Collins’ coverage was tight on both players, and time runs out for Cousins as Olivier Vernon soundly beats the left tackle.
There has been a lot of “bad” for the Giants this season. Players have been injured at an incredible clip and other players have under-performed. There is turmoil in the leadership, and unfamiliar questions regarding the future of the entire franchise.
Making matters worse is how high the expectations were heading in to the season. The Giants were expected to be among the best teams in the league, and to fall so low from so high only makes it hurt that much more.
That’s why it was nice to see these two games from Collins. Fans, and his teammates, needed to see him flying around the field like we know he can. We needed him to remind us that he is, in fact, one hell of a football player.