FOXBORO -- It's highly unusual to see a man who stands at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds playing cornerback out wide, close to the sideline, all by himself. Yet that's exactly where New England's unusual rookie talent Jamie Collins found himself with about three minutes left in the first quarter.
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck noticed and went right at Collins, testing the 23-year-old who at first looked out of place. Then the ball was snapped.
Moving with the fluidity of a defensive back 60 pounds lighter, Collins stuck with Indianapolis tight end Colby Fleener and nearly intercepted Luck's attempt down the sideline. The ball sailed just over his fingertips incomplete, forcing the Colts to punt.
It was the first look-at-me play in a night full of them for Collins, who recorded his first sack and his first interception as a pro, helping the Patriots to a 43-22 win over the Colts in their Divisional Round matchup.
"Jamie is an unbelievable talent, athlete," said Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich. "I mean, the guy can run, he can cover. He's fast and explosive. He can get up and rush. You see a guy like that, and he's one of those guys that’s got that 'wow' factor . . . His future in the NFL is very bright, so I'm happy that he's on our defense and he's playing well now. This is the perfect time for everyone to just be flying around and making plays."
Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes was placed on injured reserve this weekend, meaning more snaps for Collins and Dane Fletcher, both of whom began the year primarily as special teamers.
“It’s a postseason game, a big game," Collins said. "We’re down a man, so you know, next man up. That’s the way I look at it. Next man up.”
Given the opportunity, Collins got a chance to show off his vast array of talents over the course of the game.
On Indy's first drive of the second half, he was again matched up on Fleener -- Luck's second favorite target after wideout TY Hilton -- but this time in the red zone. Luck opted to test Collins again, floating a pass to the tight end over Collins' head and into the end zone. But Collins stuck with Fleener and was close enough to disrupt the play and force an incompletion.
"He can cover," said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. "You go out there and go against Fleener, he's one of their top guys. He got him in the end zone. He got him on the sideline. He was in great position and made good plays. I think him as a total player he's developing and turning into a really good player for us right now.
"He does everything," McCourty added. "You see him jump, run, he's one of those freakish athletes -- at his size he can do what we do in the secondary [but] as a linebacker."
Late in the third quarter, Collins displayed what he can do as a pass rusher. Firing right up the middle of the Colts formation, he was in Luck's face before the elusive Colts signal caller could avoid him. Luck quickly went down for an eight-yard sack to force a third-and-long situation.
Two Colts possessions later, with the Patriots leading 36-22 and Luck forced to try and lead the Colts on yet another comeback, Collins found himself around the ball again. Running with Fleener down the middle of the field, he swiveled his hips as Fleener changed directions, whipped his head around to the incoming pass, and reeled it in for his first NFL pick.
"He's a slimmer linebacker," said Pats corner Aqib Talib. "He's got a different build to him. He moves like he's built. He's fast. He swears he could beat all the DBs running and everything."
Collins finished with a breakout game: six tackles, a sack, a pass defensed and that icing-on-the-cake interception.
The rookie's locker room neighbor Dont'a Hightower said he has seen that Collins has had that kind of rare athletic ability "since day one." Coach Bill Belichick also praised Collins for the work he's done since joining the Patriots out of Southern Mississippi as a second-round pick -- the Patriots' top choice in the 2013 draft.
"He’s worked very hard," Belichick said. "He’s been very dependable and durable. He hasn’t missed anything all year . . . He’s playing outside linebacker in regular. He plays off the line in some regular. He plays nickel linebacker. As you saw today, he’s out there on split out tight end covering them on fade patterns and he’s blitzing up the middle and he’s making tackles in line.
"I think he’s pretty comfortable wherever he is, whether he’s out in space and covering a guy 20 yards downfield or one-on-one coverage with no help, or whether he’s in line taking on blockers, or blitzing, or covering tight ends from in close. He’s a very versatile athlete that’s smart, works hard, really has a great team attitude. I love having him on our team. He brings a lot. He doesn’t want to come off the field, even when he’s playing defense he wants to be out there in the kicking game."
The kicking game is where Collins had made the majority of his plays until Saturday night. But his performance on defense under the bright lights of the playoffs underscored the fact that he's more than a special teamer.
"He's doing great," Fletcher said. "He's understanding routes and what offenses are trying to do against us. He's doing great.
"He played out of his mind tonight, especially in nickel package," Fletcher continued. "First pick. First sack. I'm proud of the kid."