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Film Gulls: Alex Collins is steadily improving as a runner

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

The recent discontinuity at the running back position has been quite the deviation from the norm for the Seattle Seahawks, especially after years of reliability from Marshawn Lynch. A slew of backs have shown substantial talent and promise, but none have really been able to get into a rhythm for the team.

Thomas Rawls, when healthy, has established himself as a top-shelf tailback in the NFL, but the “when healthy” qualifier really slaps an asterisk on that statement. Christine Michael’s unfortunate inconsistencies ultimately propelled him away from this organization. C.J. Prosise, while electric when healthy, has not been able to stay on the field. Troymaine Pope, who is the second greatest player in NFL history (behind Tanner McEvoy of course), hasn’t been able to take a snap without spraining an ankle.

The mainstay of this group, since Week 1 of the 2016 season, has been Alex Collins. The so-called “star” of training camp, Collins was never able to take the physical and purposeful running style he displayed in college and translate it to the next level. I even wrote a piece in the preseason saying that I hoped the team would cut Collins in favor of Pope. Well they didn’t, and despite his early-season struggles, it looks like the move is paying dividends.

Collins is not the same back that he was in Week 1.

“No shit, Mike.”

Yeah, yeah, that’s a pretty obvious statement. But you have to remember how poor Collins looked at the beginning of the year. He appeared sluggish and was endlessly indecisive when choosing a hole to hit. He looked like a player that didn’t deserve to be drafted.

This piece isn’t to say that he’s blossomed into the future at the running back position for Seattle. It’s more about his film exhibiting a vast increase in confidence and a drastically improved correlation between his college tape and current playing style.

Let’s take a look at several of his touches against the 49ers on Sunday, beginning with his biggest run of the day:

Collins receives the handoff out of the gun while the entire line blocks to the left and Luke Willson pulls to seal off the right edge defender. Germain Ifedi gets away with a bit of a hold here, but I don’t think the engaged defender would’ve made the tackle anyways. A giant hole opens up for Collins, who takes off like a bat out of hell towards green grass. He cuts slightly to the right to follow Paul Richardson, who attempts to lead block. This decision gifts him extra yardage. When Richardson can do no more, Collins drops his pad level, blows through Antoine Bethea’s tackle, and gains an additional five yards.

While this play isn’t the most impressive touch of his day, it’s nice to see him immediately hit the existing hole and go beast mode a bit to finish the run.

The following video shows a bit of his inconsistent decision-making that is still lingering. This is to be expected, as he is a rookie running back who has had limited playing time.

Collins takes the handoff out of the gun again and sees a hole. While Bethea lurks towards the line to fill the gap, Collins hesitates and runs into the back of his lineman. When he understands it’s the only place to go, he heads upfield and, by then, the safety is in prime position to make the tackle. If he would have picked the hole immediately, he could have possibly plowed through the defender (like he did in the first highlighted play) and gotten more yardage.

The most impressive run of the day for Collins happened on the following snap:

After receiving the handoff, Collins sees the stunting left end and makes a quick in-and-out cut to avoid an arm tackle behind the line of scrimmage. This shifty move also puts him in a better position to blow between the end and DeForest Buckner (who George Fant does a nice job of engaging). In the open field, Collins again fights through a hit from Bethea, who just couldn’t seem to bring the hulking back down all day. Collins gains an additional six yards after contact before the corner, who is literally on his back, can bring him down.

The subtle move behind the line of scrimmage set up the entire play and led to a really nice finish. At times, though, you can see Collins’ hesitance to trust his physicality and blow up defenders. Collins obviously has the capability, but a carry later in the contest, again, shows the need for improved confidence in that capacity:

In a deep singleback set, Collins takes the ball and runs a counter back to his right. The linebacker in the hole falls for the line blocking to the left and Collins easily runs past his diving attempt at a tackle. At this point, only a corner stands between Collins and a huge plot of real estate. Instead of lowering his pads and squaring the DB up, Collins tries to cut back upfield, allowing an ankle tackle.

There are obviously still things to work on in Collins’ game, but the development we’ve seen over the course of the season while receiving only 31 carries(!) has been very promising.

Despite the struggles of Thomas Rawls throughout the year, he is still a really, really good back. If the Seahawks beat the Lions on Saturday, there’s a shot that C.J. Prosise will be back and practicing for the Divisional Round.

While these explosive playmakers might shoulder (get it?) the load moving forward, the progression of Alex Collins gives Seattle a fantastic change-of-pace runner. And, should anything go wrong, he is becoming more and more capable of making things happen as a starter.

This looks like yet another scenario where we’re reminded that John Schneider is a lot smarter than all of us. It just so happens that I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t think Alex Collins does either.