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L.J. Collier’s best(?) and briefest start as a pro

Arizona Cardinals v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Russell Wilson’s success is empowering because it is real success, not something granted or concocted, not a publicity stunt, but a model for future performance. It does not exploit him for deflected glory while Wilson makes as an ass of himself. Wilson played against the best, the best tried to use every perceived disadvantage Wilson has against him, and he excelled anyway. Wilson’s career is a microcosm of why I watch sports.

Thus it was with a modicum of satisfaction that I learned that L.J. Collier lost significant snaps to Rasheem Green against Arizona. Playing Collier might deflect some glory onto Pete Carroll and John Schneider. This time last year, it seemed like Collier might outright bust providing almost no value to the Seahawks. But he hasn’t seized a starting position either, and for a struggling defense, every fringe starter needs to be earning snaps. Team failure and ambiguous performance are criteria enough for change. Dysfunctional teams often find themselves making new problems covering for old problems. Playing Green suggests Seattle hasn’t fallen into that vicious cycle.

Did Green actually play better than Collier? Not that I could tell. Hopefully that does not become an excuse to revert, because even if Green only played roughly as well as Collier, that would justify him seeing more snaps. That someone entrenched in a position can initially outperform someone with little experience is an old standby excuse for those protecting the status quo. In this way even a chance at gaining expertise is cut off from outsiders, which is how we end up with, say, 90% of movies being made by the same people, starring the same people, and being unwatchable dreck. It is impossibly hard to enter the in group and it is prohibitively hard to gain skills without access. When I scroll through Netflix or Prime, I can’t help but think of Haruki Murakami’s parable of an island with no name*. One of the greatest mediums of art ever created is rendered shit by recursive coprophagia.

Against Arizona, Collier was credited with a sack. He forced a hold resulting in a safety. This seems like the kind of progress we want from a former first-round pick. Yet Collier also played the fewest snaps he has all season, just 24, 16 fewer than Rasheem Green, his nominal backup. Maybe Green matched better against Kyler Murray. I’ve always liked Green’s potential and never liked his game. Should he play extensively in a few more games, I’ll provide an update. For now, let’s look at Collier, the sack and safety, and how he might reach his potential.

First off, he didn’t really get a sack or even a tackle for a loss. Collier tackled Murray for no gain. Murray was running like a rusher, not running to find space to throw. That’s more than a technical distinction.

Poona Ford pressures Murray. Murray could have easily ignored that pressure because though Ford has an angle on his blocker and is playing in the backfield, there is pretty much no chance Ford actually sacks Murray. He’s easily blocked out of the play. God knows what left defensive end Jarran Reed is doing. One might call that “containment.” Carlos Dunlap squeezes the pocket from right defensive end. He seems to be doing what Reed intends. Reed’s so wide and so far from the ball that it’s hard to imagine how he might have gotten into the play.

Collier is playing three tech. He draws possibly the toughest matchup, left guard Justin Pugh. Collier is the slowest of Seattle’s four linemen off the snap.

He wastes a little time shuffling his feet left and right before attempting to rock Pugh back with a bull rush. Pugh is bent back a bit but anchors. You can see him absorbing Collier’s push with three little hop steps, each smaller than the one before, until the two reach stalemate. Pugh isn’t forcing Collier back. Collier isn’t forcing Pugh back, and he isn’t separating either.

When Murray scrambles up the middle Collier separates and grabs him. With an assist by Dunlap, Collier is able to drop Murray for a loss of about half a yard. There are different ways of judging this, each valid in its own way. Collier helped to contain a dangerous scrambler, that’s good. Murray scrambled himself into the sack, that’s not so good. But, if we’re judging this by Collier’s performance as a pass rusher, it’s just not so good.

Pugh has no trouble squaring him up. Before Murray scrambles, there’s nothing to suggest that Collier has any chance of getting past Pugh. Had Murray scrambled even slightly more to the right, Collier has no shot. Collier made good with a good opportunity, but what he didn’t do is effectively rush the passer. Ford created pressure and Murray badly overestimated its effectiveness. Consummate pass rush includes beating the blocker and tackling the ball carrier. Murray beat the blocker by forcing Pugh to either hold or release. Murray very nearly ran into Collier’s tackle.

L.J. now has two career sacks totaling one yard lost. He’s not outmatched, too small or too slow, but he has no real game. Heavy hands, a determined style, and no reliable pass rush move. At 25, it’s fair to wonder if he will ever develop an effective repertoire of moves. His work forcing the safety gives me a little hope.

I don’t know if you’d call that a repeatable strategy. Like the sack, Collier benefits from his opponent screwing up. J.R. Sweezy badly oversets right. Collier benefits from a good guess and Sweezy is screwed over by a bad guess. But Collier flashes nice lateral agility, and that’s surely repeatable. And he’s actually the quickest defensive lineman off the snap.

Collier and Ford perform a twist, with Collier aggressively attacking the right “A” gap and Ford arriving much later through the right “B” gap. Perhaps there is something to this, because Collier looks very confident, and the use of a “game” seems to help him overcome some of his limitations as a rusher. It’s not an approach which seems to fit Ford very well. Last thing the guy needs is longer to run, but maybe if Collier were teamed with a more athletic, quicker defensive tackle, this would work in the future.

According to NFL Combine Results, Collier’s closest comp is Jonathan Babineaux. Babineaux played sparingly as a defensive end before converting to a three-tech defensive tackle. He didn’t start regularly until he was 26. He never made the Pro Bowl but had a bunch of highly productive seasons for some good defenses. Here he is in 2009 running down Drew Brees.

Brees drops very deep. John Abraham, #55, does most of the work of sacking him. Abraham walks back the left tackle and separates to get in Brees’s face. At the vital moment, Babineaux turns modest separation into a quick turn of the corner and lunge to sack Brees. He doesn’t look like Geno Atkins or Aaron Donald. Big Play Babs’ older brother peaked at six sacks in a season. He looks like a good, credible three-tech.

I think Collier’s move to defensive tackle is inevitable. He seems stout enough, so long as he’s not Seattle’s primary run-stuffing defensive tackle. That is, he’s solid against a single block and survives double teams. He’s pretty quick in a phone booth, but the farther he has to go to get to the ball carrier, the less effective I think he’ll be. For a defensive tackle, he’s quick, but for an end, he’s worrisome slow. And while I did not chart every snap, I do not think he’s regularly quick off the snap. Poor overall quickness and poor reaction time make generating pressure from end a tough row to hoe. Collier is probably an assist pass rusher in that he’ll close off scrambling lanes and clean-up sack quarterbacks flushed by quicker rushers.

Collier must be allowed to bust if he is destined to bust. Dysfunctional franchises begin giving special status to certain players, especially players drafted early. They anchor to their expectations and resist new information. Pete Carroll has done an excellent job of helping players excel. Of getting into their head and making them believe in the grand possibility of their potential. At times, I’ve wondered if he is quite so good at allowing players to fail. Over the years Seattle has had some prominent sore spots on the roster, entrenched starters like Tre Flowers and Germain Ifedi who somehow never seem to do enough to lose snaps.

Collier isn’t that guy yet. He’s made some gutsy plays. Maybe he is one of the very few with some kind of inclination to do better in the highest leverage situations. But he has played in 379 defensive snaps, third among defensive linemen, and he has two more tackles than Nick Bellore, two sacks of questionable provenance, and a lot of plays in which he beats his blocker but does little with it. It’s not enough. Sometimes not enough is enough for the next guy to get an opportunity.

Except in Hollywood.

*From The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami but actually I just copied this from Goodreads:

“Do you know the story of the monkeys of the shitty island?” I asked Noboru Wataya.

He shook his head, with no sign of interest. “Never heard of it.”

“Somewhere, far, far away, there’s a shitty island. An island without a name. An island not worth giving a name. A shitty island with a shitty shape. On this shitty island grow palm trees that also have shitty shapes. And the palm trees produce coconuts that give off a shitty smell. Shitty monkeys live in the trees, and they love to eat these shitty-smelling coconuts, after which they shit the world’s foulest shit. The shit falls on the ground and builds up shitty mounds, making the shitty palm trees that grow on them even shittier. It’s an endless cycle.”

I drank the rest of my coffee.

“As I sat here looking at you,” I continued, “I suddenly remembered the story of this shitty island. What I’m trying to say is this. A certain kind of shittiness, a certain kind of stagnation, a certain kind of darkness, goes on propagating itself by its own power in its own self-contained cycle. And once it passes a certain point, no one can stop it—even if the person himself wants to stop it.”