After failing to log 35% of defensive snaps in the first eight games he was active, the Maryland product hasn’t fallen under 73% in the last five.
First time Jackson played more than half the team's defensive snaps and he balled out.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 31, 2018
Doesn't let Thielen stack him on the fade. Fails to get his head around but stays competitive w his hands, fights thru a hand to the face. All 19 could do was try and draw a flag. Didn't work. pic.twitter.com/fJgeQTBzhD
Entering the final week of the regular season, Pro Football Focus credited Jackson with a 31.3 passer rating against, best among his position in the NFL. The rookie also held PFF’s third-lowest yards per coverage snap over the previous seven weeks among corners who played at least half of their team’s defensive snaps in that stretch.
He has not allowed a single 50-yard receiving game or given up a touchdown in a single game this season, while also coming down with three interceptions.
Despite going undrafted due to question marks off the field, the 5’10”, 200 lbs Jackson has shown the potential to be an exceptional boundary corner since college.
Though he lacks the height most teams seek from the position, Jackson’s physicality, jumping ability and arm length—tied for second-longest in the secondary at 31.5”—allow him to thrive on the perimeter, particularly in press coverage.
Jackson has enough long speed and hip fluidity to stick in receivers’ hip pockets in tight coverage and rarely gets torched deep. He also consistently capitalizes on under-thrown passes.
Beyond his physical talents, Jackson’s route recognition, disciplined footwork and spatial awareness help him succeed in both tight and off-coverage.
Jackson’s most outstanding individual trait may be his ball skills, where his background as a high school wide receiver really shows. He flashed the ability to quickly locate and make a play on the football early in his Patriots career, intercepting two passes in eye-opening fashion during the preseason finale against the Giants.
Jackson misses his jam, which forces him into chase mode. Panics a bit and tries to grab Raymond to slow him down.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 31, 2018
Doesn’t draw a penalty and regains position just in time to track the ball over his shoulder and come down with it. Incredible takeaway pic.twitter.com/62B1JfcX6R
Jackson’s knack for picking off passes carried over into the regular season, where he continued to earn spots on post-game highlight reels.
Tannehill challenges JC vertically against Albert Wilson: unwise.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 31, 2018
Wilson gets through Jackson’s jam, but the CB allows no separation and does an excellent job tracking the ball for the INT.
Jackson’s receiver background is all over his tape. pic.twitter.com/K4NkDv4zrN
Jackson’s INT v the Bills was his most impressive this season, imo.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 31, 2018
Told reporters after the game he was actually in man on the TE going to the flat, but ID’ed the corner route behind him.
Didn’t think Josh Allen would dump it off, so he read the QBs eyes and stole one pic.twitter.com/71dj1J6AnH
It was pretty clear from the jump that there would be a lot to like about J.C. Jackson.
STEEP LEARNING CURVE
Preseason turnovers are never a bad thing, but the reality is that the level of difficulty skyrockets after those four exhibition games.
Cornerback is one of the toughest positions to learn and execute at the pro-level, so it is expected that the road will be bumpy for green players. Despite his clear talent, Jackson didn’t play much early in the season due to issues that plague many rookie corners: lack of poise and poor technique.
Jacksonville Gabriel again in off zone. This puts the CB in a good position to drive on underneath routes, but he cannot allow anything over the top.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 31, 2018
Gabriel runs the same route Jackson secured his second preseason INT. This time, takes the , grabs 18 to prevent a big play pic.twitter.com/pwpSfNlhMu
Some areas of concern for Jackson coming out of college were not getting his head around in coverage and a tendency to get grabby with receivers when beaten off the line or stacked.
He had a nasty habit of going into panic mode and trying to subtly interfere with receivers in an effort to regain position. Not only does this run the risk of drawing a penalty, but reaching out can also slow momentum.
Jackson’s handsy habits also popped up when Jackson was beaten horizontally, lacking the lateral agility and closing speed to make up ground quickly and disrupt catches when they cross his face cleanly.
Jackson’s most glaring issues to start the season were poor hand-placement and timing in press coverage. Rather than waiting to initiate contact once receivers declared their release, he would occasionally shoot his hands too quickly or miss his target altogether, forcing himself into chase mode or drawing penalties.
Of the five penalties (four accepted) Jackson has accumulated this season on defense, a whopping three came against the Chicago Bears. Each error showed the rookie’s lack of experience and composure.
Love the physicality, but Jackson loses control on this rep against Kevin White, drawing a hands to the face penalty on his initial punch.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 31, 2018
On a + note, JC does a good job reading the fade route and getting his head around, though you could argue he’s a bit too handsy at the top pic.twitter.com/edjRLjqQEE
Jackson did finish his flag-filled day on a high note, once again putting his ball skills to use.
Despite some early speed-bumps, Jackson finished strong against Chicago. Stuck with Bellamy on the deep route, got his head around to notice Trubisky scrambling.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 31, 2018
Read the QB and ripped the ball from Bellamy. Wanted it more.
Another remarkable plays from the rookie. pic.twitter.com/f2Nptz9zCZ
The rookie managed to stay out of the doghouse despite his heavily-penalized game in the Windy City, but it was clear he still had work to do.
WHAT ROOKIE WALL?
Since his down performance against the Bears, Jackson hasn’t been flagged for a single penalty and continues to help generate turnovers.
Slim margin for error when targeting JC Jackson vertically.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 31, 2018
Stutter step from Robinson gets Jackson to rock a bit in his back pedal and get stacked, but the CB has just enough speed to make a play on the slightly under-thrown pass.
Gifts Harmon his 2nd INT of 2018. pic.twitter.com/NgCoW4O6nZ
Jackson’s increased playing time and performance show that he has worked diligently to improve in these areas. This turnaround was on full display when the Patriots traveled to Pittsburgh in week 15 to take on the Steelers’ loaded passing attack.
An undrafted rookie shadowing stud second-year wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster would typically be enough of a headline to incite riots throughout Pats Nation. But Jackson rose to the challenge in truly impressive fashion, holding Smith-Schuster to three catches on nine targets for 39 yards.
Stats can often be deceiving, though. Low completion percentages don’t always mean tight coverage, and vice versa. But in this case, the tape backs up the numbers.
Jackson made life miserable on Smith-Schuster for most of the night playing a heavy dose of man coverage, allowing little separation outside of good scheming or offensive breakdowns and forcing the receiver to make contested catches on accurate throws from QB Ben Roethlisberger.
Perfectly-timed punch to Juju’s inside shoulder throws him off his stem toward the sideline.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 31, 2018
Jackson rides him up the field and turns his head once Smith-Schuster gears down as if adjusting for a back shoulder.
Juju bursts back upfield late for a difficult grab. Tricky tricky pic.twitter.com/PaCLKl9waH
The physical corner is at his best when challenged vertically on the boundary and closing in on underneath routes from off and zone. Ironically, that’s how Pittsburgh chose to target him on most occasions—with some success, to the credit of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster.
Jackson’s best game of the season vs Juju and the Steelers:— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 31, 2018
No false steps and smoothly opens his hips to mirror the route.
Little late getting his head around, but stays in-phase and suffocates Smith-Schustsr to the boundary.
No separation. pic.twitter.com/FyXbhraU20
Ben targeted JC on the biggest defensive play of the game.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 31, 2018
Jackson competitive w his hand-fighting in the early stages of the route.
Feels Juju pulling away when he looks back for the ball, adjusts by looking back to make a play on the at the catch point. Forced a huge punt pic.twitter.com/uITJpttRFO
Even when he received safety help, Jackson played with patience and good understanding of his leverage and responsibilities.
Jackson in trail coverage on Smith-Schuster in the slot. CB’s responsibility is jumping anything underneath.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 31, 2018
Runs with Juju stride-for-stride and gives the QB nowhere to go w the ball.
Ben sails the pass w pressure in his face and delivers Harmon his 3rd INT of the season pic.twitter.com/9YCwLuotLm
There are still some drawbacks to Jackson’s game that aren’t uncommon for his position, though.
As I mentioned earlier, Jackson’s lateral burst and agility are limited, so he can be exposed if forced to redirect suddenly or when matched up against fast receivers on crossing routes.
One area of concern for Jackson is his ability to quickly redirect in space when he can’t press.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 31, 2018
Here, he’s covering Juju in the slot. Seems to be expecting a crosser and is late dropping his hips to chase the arrow.
Makes the tackle, but gives up a lot of ground on the route pic.twitter.com/6dToFRaFbA
Jackson loses ground against Roberts as the receiver breaks across the field on the crossing route.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 31, 2018
Darnold throws slightly behind his receiver, giving Jackson space to attempt a punch at the ball. But Roberts shows strong hands and brings it in thru contact. pic.twitter.com/EKtNEL9T5M
Jackson also tends to offer easy completions on in-breaking routes from off-coverage. This is sometimes by design, as his job is to funnel receivers into the middle of the field when using Cover 3 technique.
Slants against off coverage w outside leverage are tough to defend for any CB, but Jackson is a tick late here driving on it.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 31, 2018
Keeps him from being able to tackle Burnett short of the first. pic.twitter.com/9oNEZkpc43
To his credit, Jackson’s spatial awareness and football IQ—a fancy term for how quickly a player can process information and translate it to action—often put him in position to make plays on throws if when he can diagnoses concepts.
He is also still a tough obstacle from the slot—notorious for naturally offering a deeper route tree for receivers—when he is able to get his hands on receivers.
Again, Jackson ve Smith-Schuster in the left slot.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 31, 2018
This time, CB’s able to get his hands on Juju and adjusts more quickly once he feels the receiver breaking back outside.
Forced an incomplete pass on third down. pic.twitter.com/Fk1abHSfcB
STEPHON GILMORE, MEET YOUR NEW NEIGHBOR
Jackson is far from a finished product and can still be exploited in some areas.
The timing of head turns when in-phase with a receiver and his punches in press are still a work in progress. His lack of exceptional explosiveness and lateral agility can also lead to problems against the certain players.
But ultimately, the rookie is playing confident, competitive, and smart football. In addition to his pension for helping steal the football late in games, Jackson has also shown the ability to end strong during rocky performances.
Just like in the Bears game, Jackson ends a rocky game on a high note.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 31, 2018
Drives hard on the out route from Anderson and punches the ball loose. pic.twitter.com/4lt9l2j2nQ
You can’t ask much more of a first-year player, regardless of where he was (or wasn’t) drafted. He has the intelligence and physical tools to have a bright future in this league. He’s also in one of the best situations in the league with a secondary full of talented veteran leadership and arguably the greatest defensive mind as his head coach.
Bill Belichick and his staff have done an excellent job putting Jackson in positions to succeed, especially against competition. In return they’ve been awarded another gem for their treasure trove of secondary defenders.