- The Washington Times
Wednesday, December 1, 2021

ASHBURN — Give Landon Collins credit for being honest. Even now, in the midst of a three-game winning steak, the three-time Pro Bowler still insists he doesn’t like his current role — which effectively has him playing as a hybrid safety-linebacker. 

Lost in the stubbornness, though, is this: Collins is playing pretty well.

“I’m still not thrilled about (the role),” he says, “but … I’m a team player. As long as we’re winning and I’m helping the team win, I’m good with that.”

These days, Collins is lining up closer to the line of scrimmage and holds a lot of the same types of responsibilities as a linebacker — even if Washington’s coaches have been careful not to label him as such. Washington coach Ron Rivera referred to Collins as a “dropdown” safety. “If you guys say that once in a while, he’ll be happy,” Rivera laughed.

There’s no denying Collins’ “dropdown” impact.

In Monday’s win over the Seahawks, Collins forced a fumble to go along with his team-high seven tackles — the latest in a string of solid performances. And as Collins has started to (begrudgingly) accept his hybrid role, the team’s other starting safeties — Kam Curl and Bobby McCain — have also found a groove. 

This year, Washington has consistently trotted out Collins, Curl and McCain at the same time. But what looked to be a weakness earlier in the season has suddenly turned into a strength.

“The roles are defined,” Rivera said. “We know Kam is a depth safety. We know Bobby is a good center fielder and communicator with those guys out there. And we know Landon’s an aggressive-at-the-point-of-attack player. So we can use all three of their skill sets.”

In October, Rivera said he had multiple conversations with Collins about the hybrid role. And since then, the group has found a rhythm. Curl’s playing time, in particular, has increased — going from 72% through five games to 84% over the next six. 

Collins said the safeties have settled in and now know what the coaching staff expects out of the trio. McCain agreed. He added they had to “accept coaching” and embrace the change.

With the Dolphins, McCain’s last stop, the 28-year-old said he saw first-hand how effective utilizing three safeties at the same time could be. The Dolphins had a “three-man trifecta” in Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. McDonald and Reshad Jones, McCain said. 

Using three safeties at once, McCain said, allows coaches to better disguise concepts and makes the parts interchangeable. While Collins mostly plays closer to the line of scrimmage, there are some plays when he’ll drop back in coverage. Curl and McCain will also occasionally rotate as the deep safety. 

The package can also be well-suited to counteract modern schemes and players. Two weeks ago against the Carolina Panthers, Washington used Curl on All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey — with Curl even coming up big on a pivotal fourth-down stop near the end of the game by tackling McCaffrey just short of the first-down marker.

After standing out as an unheralded seventh-round rookie in 2020, Curl has taken another step in his game this year. Unprompted at the end his press conference Monday, tight end Logan Thomas declared Curl to be a top-five safety in the league. 

“Put on the tape and tell me he’s not,” Thomas said. 

Days later, Curl still smiled over Thomas’ remark. The safety said he had an idea the shoutout was coming as Thomas told him he would do it in the locker room after the win, Curl said.

So what does Curl think of the assessment? Does he consider himself to be a top-five safety already? Curl said he has the confidence he’s up there, but added “I’ve got to keep showing it” and be consistent. 

People will start to notice if Curl continues to make splashy plays. Against the Seahawks, Curl sacked quarterback Russell Wilson on an all-out blitz. 

That play also highlighted how Washington’s three-man safety line has gained steam. While Curl was the one to drag Wilson down, Collins burst through the line and created pressure for the pocket to collapse. 

Curl noted how when Collins blitzes, opposing offenses are usually focused on the Pro Bowler because of Collins‘ track record — meaning less attention for Curl.

“He’s being a team player,” Curl said of Collins. “He wants to help his team win. He’s doing what he’s got to do to help his team win. … Winning is the most important thing, at the end of the day.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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