As if their 2020 season wasn’t enough of a disappointment already, the New England Patriots also lost their best player to a season-ending injury in Week 15. Star cornerback Stephon Gilmore partially tore his quadriceps against the Miami Dolphins, and will miss the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery.
Even though Gilmore might be back for offseason workouts, the Patriots will still have to play their final two games of the year without their number one coverage defender. True to the team’s “next man up” motto, third-year man J.C. Jackson will therefore fill in for the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year against the Buffalo Bills on Monday and the New York Jets one week later.
Jackson knows what the team expects of him as he takes on Gilmore’s old role.
“I just have to step up and be that guy,” the 25-year-old told reporters during a media conference call last week. “I just have to be that guy and be the number one corner and play like the number one corner, not just be out there just to be out there. I’ve got to play like a number one corner.”
The situation is not an unfamiliar one for Jackson. While the former undrafted free agent was firmly behind Gilmore on the depth chart his first two seasons in the NFL, he took over the number one role when the veteran defender missed three games because of a knee ailment earlier this season. He may not have played on the same consistently elite level but Jackson certainly held his own and continued to show his big-play abilities.
During that three game stretch between Weeks 8 and 10, Jackson was targeted 19 times and allowed nine catches for 178 yards as well as two touchdowns and three interceptions. His success rate when targeted was 50 percent or better each week, with his defensive passer rating of 76.1 being the equivalent of going against mediocre-at-best quarterbacks such as Daniel Jones, Drew Lock or Dwayne Haskins on each snap.
Despite the success he has had during Gilmore’s absence and throughout the rest of the season Jackson appears to be fly under the radar when it comes to national recognition. Him not getting voted to the Pro Bowl this year despite ranking second in the NFL with eight interceptions — only Miami Dolphins Pro Bowler Xavien Howard has more (nine) — can be seen as evidence of that.
However, Jackson is not concerned about being snubbed from the all-star game. His focus, in true Patriots fashion, remains on the challenges ahead.
“I really don’t care. To be honest with you, I’m focusing on Buffalo right now. I’ve got to finish out my season strong for myself and my teammates. That’s all going to fall in place,” he said. “I know what I can do. I know I’m a Pro Bowler in my eyes and it is what it is. Who cares? I love this position, it just makes me go harder. It just gives me that drive to keep balling and to keep proving to people wrong.”
Proving people wrong has been Jackson’s M.O. ever since he did not hear his name called during the NFL’s 2018 draft. He went on to join the Patriots and despite the team fielding a star-studded secondary — Gilmore, Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones served as the top-three cornerbacks during his rookie season — made the 53-man roster.
As a rookie, Jackson caught three interceptions and helped New England win the Super Bowl. One year later, he established himself as a serious starter-level defender opposite Gilmore and registered five picks.
He continued his impressive growth so far this season. However, Jackson noted that there would still be more room for him to grow and become a better defensive back — one that may soon climb onto that Pro Bowl plateau that Gilmore and Howard (as well as fellow AFC cornerbacks Tre’Davious White and Marlon Humphrey) both reached this season.
“I feel like I had an okay season,” he said. “I could have done much better. In some games, I could have played better, better performance. I’ll never give myself credit. I can be way better than I was this year, trust me. They have seen nothing yet.”
He will get his next chance to prove himself on Monday night against the Bills and one of the NFL’s premier pass catchers: Stefon Diggs, another Pro Bowl selection in 2020.