Rookie safety Nick Collins' value to the Packers is best demonstrated by what happens when he stands on the sidelines.
Collins had the wind knocked out of him with 5:30 left in first quarter of last week's game and left the field. Twenty-five seconds later, the Chicago Bears scored their only passing touchdown of the game -- a 12-yard Muhsin Muhammad reception.
Fortunately for the Packers, the second-round draft pick returned to the Bears game and has started every game this season. Collins ranks fourth on the team in tackles with 93 and third in passes defensed with nine, indicating his ability to stop both the run and the pass.
"Nick Collins is getting better and better," defensive coordinator Jim Bates said. "His big play ability is starting to show up week in and week out."
Collins' performance is most impressive, considering he made the jump to the NFL after playing three years at Division I-AA Bethune-Cookman. He went from dominating the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference to instructing Packers' defensive backs where to go.
"The first couple of games I was nervous, scared and timid," Collins said. "Now I just go out there and play."
Collins' play turned from steady to game-changing in Week 7 against the Cincinnati Bengals. He became faster with his calls and more adept at playing the ball instead of his man.
"He picked it up big time," said rookie safety Marviel Underwood, his roommate on the road.
Collins collected six tackles and three pass defensed in that game. In the third quarter, he delivered a jarring hit to Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson to break up a pass. On the next play, he jumped another pass intended for Johnson and nearly intercepted it, forcing a punt. Matching up against the talented Johnson stoked Collins' juices.
"I knew Chad Johnson was going to talk a lot of junk," he said. "That kind of pushed me."
Collins continued his playmaking ways throughout the season, notching his first interception against the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 21. During that week's film study, he noticed the Vikings liked to use their running backs on wheel routes. He read that same play in the second quarter and outjumped Mewelde Moore for a sideline pass.
To an observer, his ability to so quickly understand how NFL offenses and defenses operate may seem shocking. The precocious Collins, who set a goal of making the Pro Bowl in his rookie year, never saw that as an issue.
"If you know football," Collins said. "You shouldn't have a problem with the playbook."
Aside from his mastery of the plays, Collins possesses speed and size, which allowed him to play linebacker, safety and cornerback in college. The 200-pound Collins has a 40-inch vertical leap, great range, burst and change-of-direction ability.
He has displayed those skills on special teams coverage units as well as defense. As the R-1 or outside contain specialist, Collins has collected nine tackles and a forced fumble. Against the Detroit Lions on Dec. 11, he ran from across the field to prevent R.W. McQuarters from returning a kickoff for a touchdown. Collins knocked him out of bounds at the 16-yard line.
"(He has) eliminated the long run," Head Coach Mike Sherman said. "We hadn't made that play last year."
Collins still has areas for improvement. He needs to remain in a low stance on his breaks and work on his overall conditioning and strength. His rookie year, however, has been a success. He may not have reached his goal of making the Pro Bowl, but Collins went from Division I-AA player to a savvy leader of the league's No.1-ranked pass defense.
"They threw him into the fire," Underwood said. "Now he's figuring out what to do and how to do it."
Gado Update: Samkon Gado's strained knee ligament continues to improve, but he will not play on Sunday. "He's made some progress ... but not enough at this point," Sherman said. "We'll probably hold him back."