Tashaun Gipson’s only concern about playing with Eddie Jackson is that he won’t get to keep his No. 39, which he’s worn in all eight of his NFL seasons.
But other than dropping down a digit to No. 38? Gipson is excited for how he’ll fit next to Jackson in the Bears’ defense. And you probably should be, too.
“I like the way (Jackson) plays the game. I like his instincts,” Gipson said. “Pairing with a guy like that, I’ve always priding myself on being ball-aware. And having two guys back there, with a D-line and a front seven like that in front of you — this defense has always prided itself on being able to get turnovers, so I think that’s going to be a deadly combination.”
Gipson, though, said he's more comfortable playing deep center field, the spot where Jackson made his name as an All-Pro in 2018. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix had a similar comfort playing deep last year, which took away some of Jackson’s ball hawking opportunities.
Only 51 percent of Jackson’s snaps in 2019 came as a free safety, per Pro Football Focus, easily the lowest of his career (62 percent in 2017, 72 percent in 2018). Meanwhile, he played much more in the box in Chuck Pagano’s first year (27 percent) than he did in Vic Fangio’s last year (17 percent).
At times, it felt like the Bears didn’t get the most out of Jackson’s skillset, and he finished the year with only five passes defended (two picks, three breakups) and no touchdowns. But focusing on that would miss a big development in Jackson’s game: He became a truly interchangeable safety — not someone who’s good at just one thing.
“I feel like I’ve been more physical this year than I have in the last couple years,” Jackson said last November. “That comes with having to play in the box now trying to have to stop the run. It just helps me add something to my game that I can work on and help me become a better all-around safety.”
Jackson — who was a Day 3 draft pick in part because of tackling concerns — had five tackles for a loss in 2019; he had three combined in 2017 and 2018. He didn’t play deep as much last year, partly because he could be trusted more than Clinton-Dix closer to the line of scrimmage when Pagano wanted a single-high safety.
Gipson, while more comfortable playing deep, has similar flexibility.
Gibson said, “Coming in here with a guy like Eddie Jackson who made his big bucks on being in the middle of the field and taking the ball away — so, whatever they call for me, obviously I'm going to do that role and wear that hat with pride.”
Swapping Gipson for Clinton-Dix should allow Pagano to drop Jackson deep in more single-high situations because he can trust Gipson more in the box. That should help Jackson get more opportunities to snag interceptions and do what he does best: Turn them into touchdowns.
But Gipson's versatility also gives Pagano a better ability to focus Jackson's snaps in the box, which should allow the second-year coordinator to use him more effectively.
Jackson still played well in 2019, even if the highlight-reel plays were largely absent. But the scary thought for the NFC North is that Jackson will get back to making those highlight-reel plays while being a more complete safety than he was in 2018.
Gipson, the interchangeable veteran, should help the Bears unlock that version of Jackson.
“I don't think he's got a weakness to his game,” Gipson said. “He can play in the box, he can play in the middle of the field, and I feel (I) can do the same thing. However the roles shake out, it's not for me to decide. I just want to go out there, contribute and help win games.”