Anthony Collins, once a safety valve now a staple for the Bengals at one of the game's premium positions, has already played Sunday's game (Cincinnati's Channel 12), a 1 p.m. double date with the Ravens tag team of Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs.
Not on Nov. 10, when the Bengals lost to the Ravens in overtime, 20-17, back when Collins played just one play and that as an extra tackle. Not on Sept. 13, 2009, when he first faced Dumervil, then with the Broncos, as a second-year player making his first NFL start at right tackle.
But during this past spring Collins played against Dumervil and Suggs. With Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth recovering from knee surgery and right tackle Andre Smith out of camp for personal reasons, Collins had all kinds of time to work on his craft and craft his work with on-field snaps supplemented with film sessions.
"I already played them in my head; and they're division rivals," Collins said after Thursday's practice. "It's one thing to let a division rival get in the playoffs. So, this game is really, really serious and I have been on this game since the beginning of time.
"I got a great opportunity to step in and take a lot of reps with both my big boys out (in the spring). By me taking all those reps, it hurt my body but also helped my mind and my reps in taking a stance against all pass rushers. I started early looking at the pass rushers we had to play this year. I was already ready from the offseason. I was watching them back in May on tape. On both sides."
Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander admits this new outfit intrigues him, with Collins at left tackle and Whitworth at left guard. Asked if he's ever had a guard like Whitworth, Alexander says, "Yeah. Six years ago."
Which was Whitworth before he made the move to tackle. Asked if Whitworth is the best guard he's ever had in 19 seasons coaching the Bengals offensive line, Alexander says it's tough to choose between Whitworth and Eric Steinbach.
"Steinbach was the highest-paid guard in history when he left in free agency," Alexander said. "I don't know. They were both good. They were different, but both good."
And, no, Alexander hasn't had time to wonder if this is the line of the future.
"I'm just worried about this Sunday," Alexander said. "That's a question for another day."
It will be answered quickly in the offseason because Collins is a free agent and Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham estimates Collins has "made a fortune" in his five starts this season.
"Who said that? Big Lap? Yeah, Big Lap knows his football," Collins said with his signature big smile. "I try to ignore it, man. If I don't take care of myself on the football field … I don't know what the bosses up there are thinking. I don't know. I don't know what my general and my head coach are thinking. I don't know. They just tell me to go out there and play football. Play like I know how to play but use the techniques I was taught to use.
Translation: Collins, 28, has learned much in his six seasons. And one of them is patience. Biding his time. Focus on the task at hand. The rest will take care of itself.
"It's gotten to the point where he really understands the pro game," Alexander said. "For many years we had good tackles and for a lot of teams he probably would have played more. Early in his career he was frustrated. Now it's his time and he's taken full advantage of it.
"I really admire the way he's studied and gone about his preparation to perform against some of the league's top rushers. He's embraced that spot and he's been a good leader for us because of the way he approaches each of the challenges."
Whitworth, drafted two years ahead of Collins, has always been a sounding board for him. When he was frustrated with the coaches about not playing, Collins could always bounce if off Whitworth. Just like he does now when they text back and forth about life on the left side.
"Whit and I always talk. We play next to each other now so we are going to constantly call each other and talk," Collins said. "If we see something different on film we are going to talk. We are going to always talk. Always."
Alexander won't confirm or deny what Pro Football Focus has charted so far. That in over 500 snaps Collins hasn't allowed a quarterback hit. Never mind a sack. Unheard of at the left tackle spot, where most of the elite pass rushers test. But, like Collins says …
"I don't pay attention, but that sounds about right," he said.
If he doesn't know if it is the line of the future, at the very least Alexander is intrigued with the possibilities with Whitworth's Pro Bowl strength and athleticism inside and Collins's NBA feet on the perimeter.
"And that's not to say Clint (Boling) wasn't doing a good job at left guard because he was before he got hurt," Alexander said. "But it gives us a different look."
Since the move was made on the sixth snap of the Dec. 1 win in San Diego, the Bengals have allowed just three sacks, one when the game was on the line, although Alexander chalks that up to a few factors.
"The big thing is we've had the lead," Alexander said. "In the two games we struggled protecting, against Miami and Baltimore, we got down and we threw 60 passes. I don't care if you're the Great Wall of China. If you throw 60 passes, they're going to come home occasionally. The key for us is to get ahead, get off to a fast start, stay in competitive games where they don't know if it's run or pass."
Dumervil tortured Whitworth for multiple sacks in the second half with leads of 17-3 and 17-10, one coming right before the tying Hail Mail at the end of regulation when the Ravens spent the last 20 minutes pinning ears back because of the lead.
"We've got to first fix us. We first fix us then everything else will take care of itself," Collins said. "We can't worry about anybody else. We know they are two great pass rushers on the other side with Suggs and Dumervil. We've got to take care of our issues first, take care of our stance and settings and everything else will take care of itself.
"That's all pass rushers. You got to know their moves. The great pass rushers don't just come out the blue with new moves. They perfect one or two moves, the great ones. They learn how you set, then they do their moves on how you set. You learn them like they learn you then you will be all right … Elvis is not really different. He's the same. He's doing the same thing he's been doing; he just perfected it."
But you won't find out here what that is.
"I can't tell you because he might read this article," Collins said. "I can't tell you his moves. Just know it's going to be a fight out there."
Just know there are people around the league reading about Collins.
"No different than the last few weeks," Whitworth said of his advice to Collins this week. "Continue to prepare the way we have and rushers are rushers; you just have to be able to figure out what they are good at and be able to stop it and then be ready for things they do to adjust. All these guys are what they are; it's really all about you. Guys that are great tackles are guys that fix the flaws they have week to week."
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