Patriots

Patriots make switch in secondary, showing trust in undrafted rookie JC Jackson

Patriots make switch in secondary, showing trust in undrafted rookie JC Jackson

FOXBORO -- Raise your hand if you predicted J.C. Jackson would be one of the keys to the Patriots defensive game plan on Sunday.

Anyone?

Even if you did, even if you felt as though the Patriots were due to move on from Jonathan Jones in the slot, even if you felt the next logical move would be to bump Jason McCourty inside, even if you felt like Jackson was due for a starter's workload on the outside . . . you probably didn't foresee the Patriots stressing their boundary corners the way they did against Minnesota.

The key personnel change made this week was to have Jackson in as the third corner, bumping Jonathan Jones from what had been his primary role as the slot corner in New England's nickel package. McCourty then bumped from outside to the slot (or "star" as it's known by the Patriots) to replace Jones, and Jackson started on the outside opposite Stephon Gilmore.

Jackson ended up playing 54 of a possible 61 snaps. The Vikings tried to come after him but had very limited success. 

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On seven targets sent his way, Jackson allowed four catches for just 23 yards, and he batted away a fourth-quarter pass that turned into a Duron Harmon pick to help seal the outcome.

"He kept trying me," Jackson said of Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. "I made him respect me. He kept trying me. I like that though.

"That just gives me an opportunity to make a play so I love it. I love when quarterbacks try to throw my way."

Cousins targeted Jackson on back-to-back red-zone throws late in the third quarter, first floating one to Adam Thielen when Jackson had the league's second-leading receiver in one-on-one coverage. Jackson and Thielen did some shoving back and forth, and there was no flag thrown as the pass bounced away incomplete -- even though Jackson didn't get his head turned around to the football as it came in.

"I felt like that wasn't a penalty," Jackson said. "The ref told me after the play, 'That's good coverage, man.' . . . I wasn't holding or nothing. I just didn't look back for the ball, but there was no PI."

Why didn't he look back?

"I panicked a little bit . . . I was supposed to look back," Jackson said, smiling. "But I was panicking, man."

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"With Thielen," Devin McCourty said, "we just told him, 'Turn around, bro. You'll pick it.' That's just what you do. You turn around and you intercept the ball."

Jackson played the ball on the very next snap when Cousins targeted Aldrick Robinson on a similar route with Jackson in one-on-one coverage again. Again, Jackson was physical with his assignment, but there was no call and the pass was incomplete.

To hold up in that situation -- as he did on the deep ball he deflected that landed in Harmon's arms -- came as little surprise to Jackson's teammates.

"He makes plays in practice," Devin McCourty said, "that you guys haven't seen in the game but our whole secondary is like, '[Expletive.] There he goes again.' 

"One-handed catches. Great ball-skills. Like today. It's a long throw, it looks like the guy might have a step. As soon as J.C. turns his head, he locates the ball as good as anybody I've seen that we've had at corner . . . I think his confidence has grown and he's getting more and more comfortable being in there."

"Watching him from spring on," Jason McCourty said, "he's a guy, when he turns and looks for the ball -- elite as far as going to look for the ball, attacking the ball. You saw the one Du had, he's running, he's looking at the ball, Robinson gets a little behind him. There's no panic because he can read that ball as well as the receiver. 

    "There's plays that he makes in practice that we see week in and week out and he has some special talent. He's a guy that moments and stuff are so big for him that he doesn't even think about it. He's just out there playing football. For him it doesn't matter if he's covering [Laquon] Treadwell, Thielen, [Stefon] Diggs. He's just out there doing his thing. It's fun to watch young guys step up and every opportunity he's got, he's made the most of."

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    It wasn't just the throws to the end zone when Jackson stepped up, either. 

    On just about every crucial passing down in the game for the Vikings, the Patriots used an amorphous front that relied on strong one-on-one coverage on the outside from Jackson and Gilmore -- partly because they were two of only three players to declare their intentions on the play before the snap.

    On those plays? Cousins went 5-for-8 for 24 yards. The Vikings made just one first down on third and fourth-down snaps against those looks.

    "The play of J.C. and Steph outside tonight, there's a bunch of times where we have everyone on the inside, eight yards, walking around, moving around," Devin McCourty said. "Sometimes I shoot out. Sometimes Du shoots out. But when you do stuff like that, that puts a lot of pressure on the corners. 

    "I think the way they're playing, what we're able to do, quarterbacks are struggling to pick that up. Whether it be Green Bay. Whether it be Minnesota tonight. I think we're getting more and more comfortable with it where [Brian Flores] is having the confidence to say, 'We're going to do this because we're getting it right and it's been effective for us.' "

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    Jackson was all smiles after the fact in the Patriots locker room. Of course he was. He'd gone from undrafted to starting in a matter of about six months, and was trusted to handle tough assignments against a star-studded passing game. 

    You may not have seen this coming. Couldn't blame you if you didn't. But Jackson played as if he'd been thinking this was a long time coming.

    Just ask his fellow defensive backs.

    "The first game of the season, I played six plays," Jason McCourty said. "You don't know how the season is going to go. You don't know when your number is going to be called. 

    "But I feel like when you form those close-knit relationships within this locker room, it doesn't matter what happens, what the matchups are, who's playing, who's not. you make sure that you're studying and you're prepared for the guys next to you."

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