Over the first three games of the season, New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson served as the number four option in terms of playing time; he was on the field for 110 of a possible 182 defensive snaps (60.4%). Week 4 against the Buffalo Bills was more of the same — Jackson played 36 of 83 snaps on defense (43.4%) — but his impact could be felt even with the second-year player seeing comparatively limited action.
After all, Jackson intercepted Bills quarterback Josh Allen on two different occasions. And that was not even all, as the former undrafted free agent also registered a blocked punt — one that ended up in the arms of team captain Matthew Slater, who returned it 11 yards for a touchdown. Needless to say that Jackson played a key role in the Patriots’ 16-10 victory against their division rival, something Slater pointed out after the game.
“He was huge,” said Slater about his 23-year-old teammate, whose block made the veteran special teamer’s first career touchdown in 184 games possible. “He might’ve been the best player on the field for us today, honestly. I told him on Wednesday that he owed me a pick and he got two. He’s just locked in. He’s an instinctive player who’s a playmaker, I still don’t know how he went undrafted.”
With that in mind, let’s dig a little deeper and take a look at the film behind Jackson’s three impact plays against the Bills.
4-14-BUF 33 (6:30) C.Bojorquez punt is BLOCKED by J.Jackson, Center-R.Ferguson, RECOVERED by NE-M.Slater at BUF 11. M.Slater for 11 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
While the game ended up being a close affair, the Patriots were actually off to a great start against Buffalo. After registering an interception on the Bills’ first possession of the day, New England drove down the shortened field for a touchdown. Three defensive plays later, the home team had to send its punt unit onto the field to kick the football back to Tom Brady and company. Alas, it never happened that way.
The punt actually started with somewhat of an odd formation from the Patriots’ perspective. Instead of covering the two gunners, the Patriots used their vice players — J.C. Jackson (#27) on the far side of the formation, Jonathan Jones (#31) on the opposite end — to move closer to the box to serve as rushers:
Buffalo never adjusted to the two defenders moving towards the middle of the field, as the two gunners remained split out wide. Why did the Patriots do this? The Bills faced two similar situations in Weeks 1 and 2 and never were able to properly adjust. While the results were differently — both punts got off cleanly — New England’s special teams coaching staff led by Joe Judge and Cameron Achord saw a chance to exploit a potential weakness.
The plan worked. At the snap, Jackson rushed from the left side of the formation which put pressure on the Bills’ left shield player: fullback Patrick DiMarco (#42) had to choose between blocking the outside player or the man he’s been originally assigned to, Patriots right end Brandon Bolden (#38). He initially leaned into Bolden, but tried to also grab Jackson with his left arm. It did not slow the outside rusher down.
Jackson was able to get into the backfield nearly unobstructed, and perfectly executed the punt block. He aimed directly at the launch point and not the punter, which allowed him to get his hands onto the football and knock it up into the air. With the Patriots’ coverage players all facing in that direction, they were quickly to the ball once it touched the ground around 10 yards behind punter Corey Bojorquez (#9).
Matthew Slater (#18) scooped it up, and the Patriots were up 13-0.
1-10-NE 48 (:14) J.Allen pass deep right intended for Z.Jones INTERCEPTED by J.Jackson at NE 10. J.Jackson to NE 29 for 19 yards (L.Smith).
Later in the same quarter, Jackson was in the spotlight again. With the Bills having started their fourth possession at their own 41-yard line, the team was in a position to cut into its 13-point deficit. After a penalty against New England put Buffalo across midfield and allowed the offense to convert a 3rd and 4, quarterback Josh Allen (#17) decided to test the defense deep by targeting speedy wide receiver Zay Jones (#11).
However, the result of the play was another change of possession:
Buffalo approached the down with a 12-personnel package on the field: one running back, two tight ends, and two wide receivers. The receivers both aligned on the far side of the formation with, John Brown (#15) split out wide and Jones in the slot. On the opposite side of the line of scrimmage were Stephon Gilmore (#24) and J.C. Jackson (#27), respectively, who were playing man-to-man in New England’s Cover 1 defense.
Jones had inside position on Jackson after the snap, who stayed with the wide receiver while playing a trail technique. But even though Buffalo’s pass catcher was able to get a step on the Patriots defender on his crossing route, Allen was unable to take advantage: he threw off his back foot after having to move slightly off his spot in the pocket and with defensive tackle Lawrence Guy (#93) coming near.
The pass was badly executed by the second-year quarterback, for multiple reasons:
1.) Jones was slightly behind Jackson, but free safety Devin McCourty (#32) was also in a position to make a play on the ball if need be.
2.) Allen rushed through his technique and was unable to properly follow through on this throwing motion.
3.) Running back Frank Gore (#20) was wide open in the flat after linebacker Elandon Roberts (#52) fell down.
As they often do, the Patriots took advantage of their opponent’s miscues which allowed Jackson to register his first interception of the season. It should not remain his last as he was able to get his hands on another one of Allen’s pass attempts in the third quarter.
1-10-BUF 23 (4:06) (Shotgun) J.Allen pass deep right intended for Z.Jones INTERCEPTED by J.Jackson [K.Van Noy] at BUF 43. J.Jackson to BUF 42 for 1 yard (Z.Jones).
Down just three points late in the third period, the Bills were forced to start their next possession at their own 12-yard line. After picking up a new set of downs within two plays, both of which runs by Frank Gore (#20), the team trusted Josh Allen (#17) again to advance the football. Instead of doing that, however, the 23-year-old threw his third interception of the day and allowed the Patriots to take over in prime field position.
Once again, J.C. Jackson (#27) was on the receiving end — meaning that he caught the same number of passes from Allen on the day than his assigned receiver, Zay Jones (#11):
New England’s defense again played man-to-man against the 11-personnel group Buffalo had on the field for the 1st and 10 play. Jackson lined up on the far-side perimeter, and reacted patiently for Jones to make his move after the snap. The wide receiver ran towards and up the boundary on a comeback pattern and was actually able to get somewhat open at the top of his route. However, he never even got a hand on the football.
In the backfield, the Patriots’ four-man rush and quarterback spy Elandon Roberts (#52) were able to flush Allen out of the pocket once again. Michael Bennett (#77) provided the pivotal pressure:
With linebacker Kyle Van Noy (#53) bearing down on him, Allen decided to get rid of the football in what looked like an attempt at a throwaway. However, the quarterback did not throw the football towards the sideline enough which allowed Jackson to make an athletic play on the ball: he high-pointed it well after it sailed over Jones’ head, and was able to keep both his feet in bounds even with the wide receiver trying to tackle him.
Like the first interception, Jackson was able to take advantage of Allen displaying some bad technique and questionable decision making. He also benefitted from the Patriots’ pass rush being able to move the passer off his spot. But the pick itself was all his: he showed some strong ball skills and concentration in the process, which allowed him to come away with his third impact play — one that set up a field goal for the Patriots.