While Stephon Gilmore made most of the headlines following the New England Patriots’ 34-13 win against the Cincinnati Bengals, fellow cornerback J.C. Jackson was no less impressive: the second-year man also registered a pair of interceptions on the day — even though he returned none of them for a touchdown like his All-Pro teammate — and played a terrific game from start to finish as the top perimeter option on the other side of Gilmore.
All in all, Jackson was on the field for 52 of the Patriots’ 66 defensive snaps and finished the game with the same number of receptions given up as interceptions caught: Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton completed just two of six throws against the 24-year-old, for a combined 21 yards and two takeaways. Jackson played a terrific game against Cincinnati, and continued to show that he is in the middle of making the famed second-year jump.
“J.C. is way ahead of where he was last year,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about him. “It’s tough coming from any college program to some of the things that we have to deal with at this level. So, he was very productive for us last year and made a lot of big plays, and we used him in some of our four-corner packages — like, for example, in the Kansas City Championship Game on [Travis] Kelce.”
“And then this year, he’s really built on his awareness on his overall fundamentals and techniques. Those two plays he made on the ball were both extremely good plays. He’s done a really good job in his growth and development and improvement on the little fundamental things of his game,” continued Belichick during his media conference call on Monday when talking about the former undrafted rookie free agent.
With that all out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the plays Jackson made on Sunday to highlight how well he is playing this season — and how he has become the latest Patriots cornerback to go from draft-day afterthought to potential playmaker.
Q3: 3-2-CIN 33 (6:04) (Shotgun) A.Dalton pass incomplete short left to T.Boyd (J.Collins Sr.).
While Jackson’s two interceptions were impressive plays, the defensive back also looked good on his other 50 defensive snaps. One of them came in a third-and-two situation midway through the third quarter, and with the Bengals offense in dire need of some momentum after Gilmore’s pick-six put the Patriots up 27-10. Despite finding success on the ground earlier in the game, Cincinnati took to the air to try to extend its series.
The Bengals offense approached the play in a shotgun formation with a three-receiver bunch to the weak-side, aimed to create traffic in the area and get one of the pass catchers — motion receiver Tyler Boyd (#83) — open through it. However, the plan did not work as the Patriots’ defenders showed tremendous discipline sticking with their respective assignments throughout the play:
Jackson (#27) originally aligned on the far side but switched positions with slot corner Jonathan Jones (#31) to take on Alex Erickson (#12). While the Bengals’ pass catchers immediately charged forward to create space for Boyd to get open in the flat, neither Jackson nor Jones allowed them to charge too far up field and immediately got their hands on them. After initial contact, Jackson stuck close to Erickson on his out-route effectively taking him away as another receiving option.
The play itself may not have been an overly spectacular one from Jackson’s perspective, but it illustrates his physicality at the point of attack and ability to let go of his man early not to risk a penalty — something that hurt him during his rookie season and earlier this year, as Bill Belichick mentioned on Monday.
“He was getting some penalties early in the year and he’s really worked hard to eliminate those penalties and some of the unnecessary grabbing that made it a little bit of a problem for him earlier in the year,” Belichick told reporters about Jackson’s comparatively high penalty-count. “But, he’s done an excellent job of playing good coverage without grabbing the receiver and getting a penalty, so that’s been huge for us.”
Q3: 1-10-NE 43 (1:58) (Shotgun) A.Dalton pass short right to T.Boyd to NE 41 for 2 yards (J.Jackson).
Jackson did not just look good in pass coverage on Sunday, but also when it came to limiting yards after the catch — whether when he was giving up receptions, or when players otherwise got open. The following first down play is a good illustration of that, as Jackson successfully took Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd down in the open field after a short dump-off pass against New England’s two-deep zone defense.
Cincinnati started the play in tight 2x2 formation, with Jackson aligning on the strong side opposite Alex Erickson. With the Bengals receiver running a deep out to create space underneath for the dump-off pass, however, Jackson had to sit in his zone and react to the play — and react he did very well, as he quick charged forward as the play unfolded to make it difficult for Boyd to create significant positive yardage:
Jackson reversed course quickly, but did not over-pursue and instead forced Boyd to try his luck towards the boundary. Jackson reacted well, and pushed the ball-carrier out after a short gain of two yards. His patience and play recognition allowed him to make a play, and they are also what made his two interceptions possible later during the game. Speaking of which...
Q3: 3-4-NE 37 (:30) (Shotgun) A.Dalton pass deep right intended for A.Erickson INTERCEPTED by J.Jackson at NE 10. J.Jackson ran ob at NE 10 for no gain.
Jackson’s first pick of the day came with the defense facing a third-and-four. With the Bengals down 17 at this point in the game, however, a deep shot was a realistic possibility — the team was in four-down territory, after all. New England was ready for it, and Jackson delivered one of the game’s biggest plays in the process. He had great position throughout the play, and made a terrific catch while staying in bounds as was confirmed by review:
The Bengals offense aligned in a 1x3 formation, with Alex Erickson as the receiver on the far right side opposite Jackson. New England, meanwhile, showed a one-deep look initially but switched to a Cover 4 defense with safety Duron Harmon (#21) moving back right before the snap. This meant that Jackson — like Patrick Chung (#23) on the other side — was responsible for the deep portion of the field against Erickson.
The second-year man was up to the challenge and stuck to his assignment’s hip from the get-go. He allowed Erickson a free release but immediately was able to get inside position, and mirrored the pass catcher perfectly even when he used a stutter-step to try to get separation. This, in turn, allowed him to pin him to the sideline throughout the pattern and eventually make a play on an inaccurate deep shot from Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (#14).
Despite Erickson close to him, Jackson was able to extend well and come away with the football for his first interception of the day — an impressive catch that highlighted his abilities when it comes to playing the ball, something Stephon Gilmore also noted after the game: “He has the best ball skills I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of corners. He plays the ball as good as anybody.”
Q4: 1-10-CIN 49 (3:54) (Shotgun) A.Dalton pass deep left intended for J.Ross III INTERCEPTED by J.Jackson at NE 13. J.Jackson ran ob at NE 26 for 13 yards (T.Eifert).
The game was essentially out of reach for the Bengals in the late fourth quarter, but Jackson put the exclamation point on an impressive defensive performance on a first-and-10 attempt. Aligning one-on-one over X-receiver John Ross, the defender again played the down perfectly from the get-go: Jackson got his left hand on Cincinnati’s pass catcher to push him towards the boundary and limit the space he had available to work with.
The Maryland product then followed up on the push by staying in Ross’ pocket throughout his route and finally tracking the football very well in the air, knowing that he had the help of deep safety Duron Harmon over the top. Jackson again made the pick — this time an easier one that his interception in the previous quarter — and was even able to return it 13 yards to give the offense some breathing room before running out of bounds:
“I remember J.C.’s first year last year, we were down a scout-team receiver,” Harmon said after the game. “He went over there and played receiver and was making plays, catching the ball, running some good routes. [...] His ball skills are phenomenal. Not too many guys can, on a fade, run with the receiver, turn around, locate the ball, high-point the ball, and he’s done that just continuously over the last two years.”
“The sky is the limit for that guy right there. What was that, his fifth interception of the year? And he’s, in some ways, our fourth cornerback. It just shows you the type of ball skills — elite ball skills — that he has,” continued Harmon. Jackson’s ball skills certainly were on display against Cincinnati, as was his general growth as a player: from his discipline against bunch concepts and in the open field to his technique in one-on-one coverage.