This is a question I have been starting to consider more and more as the season approaches. Rob Demovsky has a decent break-down of the situation as it stands now here.
Some think that Rouse should start. After all, in his 3 starts last year, he had two picks, played solid defense and a had a few nice hits. Physically, he’s huge and according to this article he’s even bigger and stronger now after a good off-season. Having Rouse and Bigby back there could be positively terrifying for other teams and opposing receivers. As I write, I almost become convinced that this may be the better option.
However, I think there is one other factor that is very important in the back of the defense and that’s speed. Collins can fly, Rouse and Bigby are just not as fast. I can anticipate comments right now “sure, Collins is fast but it doesn’t help if you’re out of position, dropping picks and poor in coverage”. (Actually, that would be a solid counterpoint). Still, Collins was very good as a rookie – very good. He showed huge upside that we all assumed would blossom fully by now (sorry for the literary, flowery reference). But while the truth is that he hasn’t played to his potential and that he’s been somewhat shaky in coverage, I think there is just too much potential to shut him down now. I found it interesting in Demovsky’s article when he seemed to give Bigby a pass (pun intended) on the TDs allowed when he wrote “he (Collins) was responsible for giving up four touchdown passes — only one fewer than Bigby, a first-year starter who played in every game”. While we were all impressed by Bigby’s hits and his play-making abilities, I don’t think he was stellar in coverage either. And Demovsky is actually pointing to an area (TDs allowed) where Bigby was worse than Collins, not better. (I know Collins played fewer games, but still…)
But another reason why I’m not ready just yet to give up on Collins is that I don’t think the coverage errors of last year can all be pinned on him. While he was solely responsible for some gaffes I’m sure, when you have another safety with some coverage issues and a LB in Poppinga who struggled in coverage mightily at times (especially earlier on), it’s hard to say Collins is THE coverage goat. I’d even throw A.J. Hawk in there too – he wasn’t flawless in coverage (though he also wasn’t flawful either, if you will).
While my inclination at this very early point would be to stick with Collins and Bigby, I must say, I’m greatly comforted knowing Rouse is back there and ready to jump in if things don’t work out. Of course, another alternative I know Sanders wouldn’t consider would be a 4-2-5 defense. I know it sounds ridiculous but many times innovative ideas are initially considered ridiculous (a 5 receiver set…who does that!). Why not play to the strengths of our personnel and start with Rouse, Bigby AND Collins, with Barnett and Hawk manning the LB spots. Rouse is clearly more of a playmaker than Poppinga, is better in coverage and he has at least the potential to be as physical and therefore not a huge drop-off in the run game. This would make passing against the Pack brutal, assuming Harris and Woodson can maintain their games.