By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
If all goes according to plan for the Patriots on Sunday night, J.C. Jackson should see the football thrown his way a lot.
That's no knock on the undrafted rookie cornerback, who's likely to make his sixth appearance of the season against the Green Bay Packers. He's just going up against Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay's future Hall of Fame quarterback knows that he's going to have to target his secondary options to have success against the Patriots, let alone enough enough success to pull off a road win in Foxborough.
Top Rodgers target Davante Adams is likely to draw plenty of Stephon Gilmore and safety coverage over the top. Randall Cobb should see Jonathan Jones on the inside. Marquez Valdes-Scantling? He could find himself lined up against Jason McCourty, who's grown into a regular in the secondary and earned it with solid play on the outside.
But against the emerging Valdes-Scantling and others, Jackson has the kind of size and physicality in the Patriots' defensive backfield that perhaps only Gilmore could match. Considering the size that the Packers will throw at the Patriots at receiver up and down the depth chart, Jackson is suddenly a key player in a big-time matchup on national TV.
Jackson has gradually begun to earn his snaps after being inactive the first two games of the season. It's happened a little out of necessity, with Eric Rowe dealing with a groin injury. Now that Rowe is on IR, Jackson's role as a reserve corner should be permanent, if not grow more over the course of the season.
He's well aware of the challenge that awaits Sunday night, and the fact that he may be getting a lot of work with Rodgers slinging it.
"I’ve just got to be ready," Jackson told 985TheSportsHub.com on Friday. "I’ve been preparing myself all week. We know it's a big game for us. We’ve got A-Rod coming here, good team, good offense. We’ve just got to be ready to play."
With Packers wideout Geronimo Allison doubtful to play, that could thrust a rookie of their own into play. Sixth-round pick Equanimeous St. Brown could be back over 30 snaps on offense after playing just six against the Rams last Sunday. The 6-foot-5 St. Brown presents a ridiculous size advantage that perhaps only Gilmore or Jackson could take on in a one-on-one matchup.
Jackson has a clearer path than ever to earning a regular spot in the Patriots' cornerback rotation, and this could be his time to show the football world the kind of plays he's capable of making.
The rookie's season-high in snaps came in Week 7, with 31 defensive snaps on the road against the Chicago Bears. The game was emblematic of the typical rookie roller coaster. Jackson had his ups (a ball-hawk interception to maintain a seven-point lead at the time) and downs (three penalties, two of which on a single drive that led to a Bears touchdown). Discipline may be an issue for a player of his type as a rookie, but his interception hinted that more timely playmaking could be on the horizon.
Jackson knows that moment could come on Sunday night, if and when Rodgers has to move off his primary reads and target him down the field.
"He doesn’t care who you are, if he likes the matchup that's where he’s throwing the ball," said Jackson.
While he may not see much more than the 31 snaps he saw against Chicago, this is the kind of opponent where the entire secondary needs to be on point. Rodgers could beat perfect coverage with even more perfect throws, so the coverage better be perfect.
Jackson still needs to show more consistency, particularly when playing zone vs. man coverage, for the Patriots coaching staff to trust him as much as other corners. But he's shown enough improvement and ball skills that there's reason to be confident he can play well on the perimeter against those secondary receivers in the Packers passing game.
"I think he’s done some good things; I think we've got a long way to go from a development standpoint in the fact that it's just a consistency thing that we've got to do day in day out," Patriots cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer said of Jackson earlier this week. "But he’s done a great job of coming in, being prepared. I would say that it's the same with all of our guys. There's some things that he’s done well and were trying to build upon that and expand that, and there's some things we need to improve and work on, and to his credit he’s been able to do that. We’ve been able to see some production on Sunday."
They may need to see that production more than ever against Rodgers. He's sharp enough to take what the defense is giving him, and it could turn out that targeting Jackson is Rodgers' best play.
It'll be up to Jackson to make Rodgers pay for delivering the ball to his neighborhood.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].