By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
JC Jackson had himself a day in the Patriots' 24-10 win over the Vikings on Sunday. It was hard to tell exactly how much of an impact the undrafted rookie out of Maryland had in his first career start without getting a look at the All-22 film, but the second viewing shows that it was pretty sizable.
Jackson started as the No. 2 outside corner opposite Stephon Gilmore as Jason McCourty moved inside, where he often matched up against the Vikings' likely All-Pro receiver Adam Thielen. Jackson only needed to cover Aldrick Robinson or Laquon Treadwell on most of his career-high 54 defensive snaps, but with the Patriots aiming to neutralize Thielen and Stefon Diggs, Jackson's role in shutting down those third and fourth options became that much more important.
That's basically what the rookie did. Jackson was targeted seven times and allowed four catches for 23 yards, one of them a nine-yard catch against Treadwell late in the fourth quarter, with the game well in hand for the Patriots by that point. All four catches allowed by Jackson came with him well off the line in zone coverages as part of the Patriots' amorphous defensive looks.
Jackson drew three targets when playing his bread-and-butter man coverage, and the ball fell incomplete all three times.
The rookie also set a heavy physical tone for the game. Elandon Roberts drew the attention for blowing up Dalvin Cook on the Vikings' first play of the game from scrimmage, but Jackson also deserves credit for letting Treadwell know what he was in for. Watch the top of the screen as Jackson absolutely mauls Treadwell on the first play.
On the vast majority of his passing snaps, Jackson appeared to do his job just as Bill Belichick wanted him, whether it was holding tightly in his coverage or maintaining his zone or chipping receivers at the line. They also weren't afraid to play him on either side of the field and motion him, as they did when he ran all the way across the formation on this play, seemingly in anticipation of taking away Thielen on the left side. The Vikings tried some misdirection here, but Dont'a Hightower sniffed it out and dropped Cook for a two-yard loss.
The Patriots often forced Cousins to look for his options besides Diggs and Thielen, but Jackson made it that much harder by sticking to the other receivers down the field. He even drew a target against Thielen in the end zone, and the rookie came up big in perhaps his best sequence of the game.
Jackson avoided a pass interference flag on his lone target against Thielen, when he was a tad late looking back for the ball and making plenty of contact. But replays showed that it was actually Thielen initiating much of the contact on the play. Jackson admitted after the game that he was worried he would get flagged for not playing the ball, but that the officials told him he had good coverage. Tend to agree with that.
The rookie drew another deep target in the end zone two plays later, as Kirk Cousins appeared determined to exploit him. No dice this time, either, as Jackson recognized his assignment to cover Robinson out of the Patriots' muddled formation (with a little help from Jason McCourty) and blanketed the receiver all the way down the field. Incomplete.
And finally, Jackson showed off his sneaky-good ball skills on his pass breakup that led directly to Duron Harmon's latest end zone interception. You can see that his hand-fighting with Robinson popped the ball in the air long enough for Harmon to snag it.
“I just felt like I was ready,” Jackson said after the game, via the Providence Journal's Mark Daniels. “I prepared all week, and I knew I had to come and make plays with the team depending on me.”
Jackson has been far from flawless in his first season, but he was pretty close to it on Sunday and he did it while playing by far the most single-game snaps of his young career. Belichick sounds willing to take the growing pains in order to reap the rewards of Jackson's skills and physicality.
"Well, J.C.’s worked really hard and made a lot of improvement this year, going all the way back to the spring, and coming in as an undrafted player just has really worked his way all the way up to earning a spot on the roster and then earning play time," said Belichick during his Monday conference call. "So, he’s just been very dependable and gotten better every day. It’s not always perfect, but he learns from his mistakes and corrects things.
"So, it’s taken a little time for him to gain some experience, but he’s doing a good job with it and has good ball skills. He has the ability to get his hands on the ball and judge the ball and make good plays on the ball, like he did on I think it was the third down play where he kind of went up over Robinson’s back to get his hands on the ball and bat it away. So, we’ve seen him do that a lot. He’s got a good knack for timing and getting his hand on the ball."
Jackson is as competitive as any player on the Patriots roster, and he's becoming quite a fun player to watch. We'll see how big his role is moving forward, but he did exceptionally well in his most prominent role yet on Sunday. It would be hard to believe he didn't gain a ton of trust from Belichick after this one.
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].