What J.C. Jackson learned from Stefon Diggs: ‘You’ve got to almost be perfect’

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Doug Farrar
·5 min read
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It’s very hard to be a lockdown cornerback from season to season. Any slip-up in performance, whether it’s due to injury, scheme change, or just one off day, amplifies your liabilities to a deafening roar. It’s why defensive back is one of the most unforgiving positions in sports.

Over the last two seasons, few if any cornerbacks have skirted this edge better than J.C. Jackson of the Patriots. In 2019, his second NFL season, the undrafted man from Maryland had a breakout campaign as the team’s No. 2 cornerback behind Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. Including the postseason, Jackson allowed just 31 receptions on 65 targets for 328 yards, 146 yards after the catch, one touchdown, five interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 35.9. Basically, opposing quarterbacks were better off hurling the ball into Section 230 than they were testing Jackson at all.

While injuries limited Gilmore’s performance in 2020, Jackson was still on point. Outside of a bizarre two-touchdown game against the Jets in Week 9, he’s been just as good as he was last season, and he’s had to cover more No. 1 receivers because of Gilmore’s absences. Coming into New England’s Week 16 Monday night tilt against the Bills, Jackson had allowed 34 catches on 63 targets for 433 yards, 163 yards after the catch, three touchdowns, eight interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 52.0.

Jackson was absolutely snubbed in the NFL’s recent Pro Bowl voting, but he had an opportunity to state his case against Bills super-receiver on Monday night. Gilmore’s season was over due to a torn quadricep muscle he suffered in Week 15, so Jackson — a restricted free agent in 2021 — had the chance to show the world that it’s time to see him as that top-tier guy.

Early on, it worked. Jackson enveloped Diggs on his first target on an in-cut, he allowed a two-yard gain on a quick outlet pass on the second, and on the third, Jackson made a brilliant interception in the end zone that was negated by an offsides penalty.

Then, there was the deep incompletion from Josh Allen to Diggs down the left side with 7:52 left in the first half. Another great play by Jackson, but this is where he shouldn’t have gotten high on his own supply.

“He was saying, ‘Don’t play with me’ and doing the No Fly Zone thing,” Diggs said after the game, via Zack Cox of NESN.com. “I don’t really like that very much. I don’t take too kindly to that. So I was just like, ‘Relax.’”

And that, as they say, was that. Diggs’s next catch was a 17-yarder in which Jackson had to pull off Diggs and take Gabe Davis on a mesh concept. Then, Diggs’ first touchdown against Jackson — a 50-yarder with 4:05 left in the first half in which Diggs gave Jackson an outside foot-fake, ran inside position on the crosser, and ate Jackson’s lunch. Matching speed receivers on crossers is very challenging for any cornerback — it’s one of the things a healthy Stephon Gilmore does exceedingly well — and Jackson just couldn’t catch up.

“I didn’t really see the ball and I feel like I hesitated a little bit,” Jackson later said. “He was about to cross and then when he caught it and scored, yeah I kind of hesitated. I saw the ball at the last minute. He caught the ball and he ran it in for a touchdown. He’s a good player, he’s a playmaker. Like I said, I could have done better, I could have had tighter coverage.”

Then, with 11:35 left in the third quarter, Jackson was playing off-coverage, and Diggs just wasted him with a whip route.

Diggs’ third touchdown came with 13:24 left in the game, and Jackson on the sideline, replaced temporarily by Joejuan Williams before he was allowed back on the field.

Asked why he wasn’t on the field, Jackson said, “I can’t discuss that with the media.”

Well, we can infer. The Bills beat the Patriots 38-9, and Bill Belichick was Not Amused.

This is not to malign Jackson as a player — it’s clear and obvious that he’s one of the best at his position in the game today. One assumes that what he learned from Diggs in this game will make him even better as time goes on.

“I learned from it that each play, you can’t take any reps off,” Jackson concluded. “You can’t fall asleep, you’ve got to be alert and ready every play when you’re playing a receiver like that. He’s a playmaker, he comes back to the ball better than any receiver in the league. He’s got great hands. You’ve got to almost be perfect when you’re guarding somebody like that. You’ve got to almost have perfect coverage in man-to-man.”

A bitter truth, learned the hard way.