Back on Aug. 7, Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy was asked about his second-year safety, Eddie Jackson, whom many analysts identified as a player who could break out on the team’s defense this season — and this was prior to the acquisition of Khalil Mack.
“You know what I see with Eddie? He's becoming more vocal and his confidence is getting greater every day,” Nagy said. “You can see a guy who is getting more trust in the defense, having more trust in himself. He's communicating with his teammates on the back end, and he's a physical player with good ball skills, so you put that together and every day that passes I think he's getting better and better.”
Jackson was an impressive player in Year 1 as a fourth-round pick out of Alabama who had been slowed down in college by a litany of injuries, including an ankle as a freshman in 2013, a torn ACL in 2014 and a broken leg in 2016. Considering he also missed two years of high-school ball with academic issues, it’s fair to say he was a pretty raw prospect when Bears GM Ryan Pace selected Jackson 112th overall, even with some impressive moments for the Crimson Tide as a cornerback, safety and return man.
But the Bears clearly identified him as a playmaker, which was something this defense needed with a lack of takeaways the past few seasons prior to late in 2017. Jackson had five returns for touchdowns at Bama — three off interceptions and two on punts — and was named Defensive MVP in the Tide’s 45-40 win over Clemson in the 2016 national championship game with an interception.
After the draft, Bears area scout Sam Summerville summed up Jackson this way: “He’s got instincts, he’s got ball skills, and when he gets the ball he knows what to do with it.”
Jackson also opened eyes as a rookie starter for all 16 games, showing a good nose for the ball with two interceptions and three fumble returns. He had a career game against the Carolina Panthers (TD returns on a fumble and INT) and entered this season with high hopes. Nagy felt his young safety was on the verge of a very good season because of an increased comfort level and returning with the tutelage of Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell.
“I just think he’s made that jump from rookie season to second year and he’s a little bit better at everything, feels a little bit more comfortable in the system, what we’re asking him to do,” Fangio said on Sept. 27. “Any time a player does that, they can uplift their game to another level because mentally they know more, reaction time, their recognition time has quickened. And that’s what he is doing.”
And it’s showing up on tape. Jackson can help claim his share of why the Bears have one of the better pass defenses in the NFL.
He is not only a crucial piece on the back end of the Bears’ defense, but he appears to be emerging as one of the better young safeties in the NFL. Prior to Week 3, Fangio called Jackson “a quarterback of the defense,” which is high praise for a player who doesn’t turn 26 until December.
Let’s take a look at five plays from Jackson so far in 2018 as a demonstration of where he has improved, where he can get better and how high the ceiling is for him going forward:
Near-miss at Lambeau Field
As the wheels were coming off in Green Bay in Week 1, with the Bears watching their 20-0 lead evaporate via the magic hands of Aaron Rodgers, you could see the entire defense get tight. Missed tackles, overrun plays and mental mistakes — they were not glaring in all cases, but they were evident on a second viewing of the coaches’ tape. Jackson was among that group.
But even with Rodgers (who reentered the game after a knee injury) cutting the lead to 20-10, the Bears stuck to basic coverages and tried to prevent deep shots. This is what you’re supposed to do, so the strategy wasn’t the issue. When the Bears were forced to blitz, Rodgers burned them.
Much of what Jackson does as the last-line-of-defense deep safety is patrol a lot of open area — sometimes as a single-high safety, but most often responsible for the middle third or one half of the field, depending on the coverage. As Rodgers cut the lead to 20-17, he mostly was attacking the edges of the defense and not going after Jackson. Part of this had to do with Rodgers’ limitations with the knee.
But on third-and-10, the Bears came with man coverage with Leonard Floyd able to blitz if his man (RB Ty Montgomery) stays home. Jackson is in a deep-safety look, covering one half of the field while SS Adrian Amos mans the other half. Packers WR Randall Cobb is matched up in the slot with Bears CB Bryce Callahan and runs a square-in (or “deep dig” route).
Although Callahan loses Cobb at the stem of the route, Jackson is there to do as he’s taught: drive downhill — “top down” in coaching parlance — and cut the route off. (At this point, Jackson actually bumps Cobb at the end of the route, but the referees let what would have been a ticky-tack call go.)
The problem here is that Rodgers is able to buy some time with his feet and hold the ball for a full four seconds before throwing it. He has to do this because no one else is open. It appears that Rodgers either wants to hit one of two receivers: Cobb in the middle or Geronimo Allison, who lined up outside of him, on the same route. The idea here is to force the safety — in this case Jackson — to pick one or the other and go away from him.
This is a tough assignment for Jackson, or any safety for that matter, as he has to guard against out- and in-breaking routes and also be mindful of the deep shot in the two-minute drill with one of the best quarterbacks in the game at the trigger. Jackson handles it great … right up until the part that Rodgers improvises. His special relationship with Cobb allows him to sit on his route and break back the other way.
Rodgers works his progression and passes up a drag route to TE Jimmy Graham, who has a corner (Kevin Toliver) on him. And actually, had Rodgers been able to work his way back to the other side of the field, Montgomery released on a wheel route and had at least two steps on Floyd in coverage with no deep help.
But the trust factor with Cobb is key, and Rodgers is able to throw back the other direction and lead Cobb on a great ball. Callahan saw that Jackson drove the route and is caught in no man’s land. Jackson (No. 39) overran the play, assuming Cobb would continue to work toward the sideline, and was unable to get a hand on the pass that would end up as the game-winning, 75-yard touchdown.
And here’s the all-22 look, just to show how far Jackson had drifted in his coverage — and how close he was to knocking the ball away:
“The whole team got lazy,” Jackson said after the game, per the Chicago Tribune’s Colleen Kane. “We got too complacent, especially on the defensive side of the ball. We didn’t finish. We came out the first half swinging. The energy was there. The second half I felt like the energy was low. Everybody got complacent, and we lost focus that we still had a game to finish.”
Jackson wasn’t shirking blame on that play; he was just calling it like he saw it, something this observer (and many others) agreed with. Don’t overlook Jackson’s quiet leadership in this Bears defensive equation. Several other teammates have mentioned how he’s grown into that role in Year 2.
The Bears were leading the Seahawks, 24-10, with just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter in Week 2. Seattle had used all of its timeouts and was facing a second-and-2 at its own 9-yard line. Clearly, this is a situation where Fangio is wanting his defenders to play it safe, keep everything in front of them, tackle well and make the Seahawks slowly march up the field.
The Seahawks come out in “11 personnel” with the tight end, Will Dissly, lined up on the far slot. This is the most common personnel grouping in the NFL today, one in fact that Nagy has used a lot of when the Bears are on offense. Seattle is lined up three-by-one to the offense’s right side, and the Bears appear to be in a cover-3 defense.
Jackson’s role as the free safety is to drop back to cover the middle half of the field. From there, he’s guarding against the deep shot, so gaining proper depth is crucial. But Jackson also must be on his toes and ready to break downhill against in-cuts, such as the post, the dig or the seam route. He also needs some help on the latter, however.
This coverage calls for three deep defenders, plus four underneath covering the flats (outside) and the hole (inside). So when Dissly runs a seam route, he’s taught to attack the outside shoulder of the linebacker (in this case, Danny Trevathan) and drive back inside toward the middle of the field — Jackson’s domain.
Dissly correctly looks for the ball right away. The middle of the field is closed with Jackson in a single-high look, so Russell Wilson knows the best plan of attack in the quick game is to hit Dissly fast once he’s got a step on Trevathan and before Jackson can close it down.
As we watch the play, Jackson starts lined up 18 yards deep off the ball, and he’s dropping at the snap. Wilson is in the shotgun, takes a quick drop and lets it rip — the ball comes out fast, just as it should. Let’s watch the first half of the play (unfortunately, from what just happens to be the worst coaches-tape angle at Soldier Field) to see what it looks like with Jackson’s alignment:
Now let’s take a look at the tail end of this play, from right before the ball hits Dissly’s hands. This is just a poor angle to the ball and tackling form by Jackson as he slips and misses taking the tight end down for what would be a 34-yard gain. It appears that he overruns it and allows the sneaky-agile rookie tight end (and a former defensive lineman, believe it or not) to shake Jackson with a subtle move back upfield and gain an extra 8-12 yards.
This is a part of Jackson’s game, as an aggressive player, that he must tighten up. Missed tackles were a big storyline in Jackson's rookie season, as he was guilty of this in his first start against Atlanta (vs. Austin Hooper) and what likely was the worst game he's had in the NFL against the Eagles (at least three poor tackle attempts, including one that went for a touchdown against Nelson Agholor).
It has been a less frequent affront in Year 2, but it's still an area in which Jackson remains a bit of a developmental player.
Two INTs vs. Arizona — one that counted, one that didn’t
Coaches I’ve talked to over the years have told me that Fangio disguises his safeties well, making it tough for quarterbacks to identify zone or man coverage prior to the snap. That in turn slows down passers' processing ability and allows the rush to gain a small advantage.
That’s a great example of scheme and coverage helping the rush prior to the ball even being set in motion. A good portrayal of this is the 2017 Bears defense prior to Mack’s arrival, which had 42 sacks (tied for seventh-most in the NFL). Akiem Hicks was the only player on that unit last season with more than 4.5 sacks, which shows that it was often a full-unit effort to sack opposing quarterbacks.
This year with Mack, Fangio is able to play more coverage and not feel the need to blitz. Last season seemed to feature more man-heavy coverage in high-leverage situations — such as third-and-short or -medium — against decisive, accurate quarterbacks (Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees, for instance) to help eliminate the quick passing game — “levels” or “mesh” concepts, among others.
These and similar concepts came into play quite a bit in the Arizona game. It’s clear the Bears wanted to try to hold back showing what coverage they were in against a very traditional passing game with only a few targets that strike any real fear. The Cardinals got the early lead at 14-3, but the Bears’ defense was really starting to tighten up as we fast-forward to Arizona’s first possession of the second half.
It’s third-and-9 from the Arizona 28-yard line. The Cardinals line up in the shotgun with “11 personnel” (one back, one tight end), with TE Ricky Seals-Jones staying home in a six-man pass protection. The Bears are rushing four, with Hicks rushing from a wide-9 alignment on the offense’s left side and Mack and Leonard Floyd both coming from the offense’s right.
QB Sam Bradford actually has a pretty clean pocket from which to work, as Hicks and NT Eddie Goldman face double teams, Floyd is stalemated by Seals-Jones and Mack is appearing to get caught up in the trash up front, despite RT John Wetzel stumbling out of his stance. (We bet Mack wishes he had this rep back, as it might have been a sack or a heavy pressure had he bull-rushed Wetzel.)
Bradford appears to know where he’s going with the ball pre-snap. He gives a cursory look off to Larry Fitzgerald, who is running a slant. Bradford doesn’t sell it well enough, though, and the Bears are pretty disciplined in their zone drops.
It appears the Bears are in a cover-3 “Buzz” defense, where they appear to be showing a two-deep look before the snap but rotate into a three-deep alignment where SS Adrian Amos jumps down into a “buzz” (or “robber” role) underneath. That leaves Jackson as the middle-field safety, dropping a good 15 yards off the snap to help eliminate anything deep while Amos helps defend hooks and curls underneath.
CB Prince Amukamara (outside technique) is matched up with WR J.J. Nelson at the top of the screen and stays with him on the vertical route until the final few steps, when Amukamara suffered a hamstring injury and would leave the game. But Jackson is key here: He sees Bradford locked in on Nelson and starts his break that way a full second before Bradford releases the pass.
The ball belongs to Jackson. He tracks it beautifully, keeping Nelson in his peripheral vision. What I like about Jackson especially on this play is that he seems to sense that the throw is a little too deep for the receiver, or perhaps that Nelson geared down at the end of his route. He looked back for the ball, and by the time Nelson sees it, the ball was in Jackson’s arms.
At the end of the fourth quarter, with the Bears now protecting a 16-14 lead in the final minute (with Josh Rosen in at QB), Jackson once more showed great anticipatory skills in jumping a route before a Cardinals receiver even had a shot at the ball. So I listened to Jackson after this game, and it was difficult to tell whether he was saying the Bears were trying to disguise cover-2 or rather to show cover-2 off the snap and rotate into a three-deep zone. That’s what the tape shows — this time with Amos dropping to the deep half and Jackson walking up.
This looks off the hoof like a “dagger” concept the Cardinals are running, but that typically would have Fitzgerald (lined up in the near slot) running what amounts to a clear-out route, with WR Chad Williams the primary target on the in-cut and Seals-Jones running a drag route on the backside. Except Rosen throws very early — and given the decision, we’re not exactly sure what he saw or what the correct progression and read should be there.
The Bears are rushing three, and maybe there’s an adjustment Rosen expected from Fitzgerald? Not knowing the Cardinals playbook, we’re not 100 percent on this one, but Rosen is throwing the ball before Williams is even at the top of his stem and … who are you trusting, Rosen in his first NFL game or Fitzgerald, in his 221st?
Have a look:
Whatever the case, Jackson has this thing pegged immediately. He even has to slow up — or hold back, perhaps — to make sure he can still bait Rosen into throwing it. Here’s another still shot of Jackson breaking on the route before Rosen has even started his windup.
The rookie Rosen takes the cheese, and Jackson jumps it and is off to the races. Sure, you noticed Mack offsides at the top of the screen, and that wiped out the pick-six. But his pressure didn’t directly affect Rosen, and Jackson’s tremendous read and break shouldn’t be negated for another player’s penalty.
Here’s how Fangio described it: “Right where he was supposed to be. They ran a route that was good for that coverage we were in, and he was right where he was supposed to be.”
Timing vs. Tampa Bay
The Bears faced a third-and-19 from their own 25-yard line, leaving the defense in a luxury position. They were more than OK giving up a short completion and a field goal, leading 35-3 at that point. That’s the beauty of being up four scores prior to halftime. Fangio has the Bears aligned in what some have called his “picket fence” defense, with three rushing and eight defenders dropping — six of them lined up 15 yards (or more) deep. Let them have the 8-yard curl; no biggie. The real sin is giving up six.
But Jackson is in a great position to make a play here, and it appears — just like the Rosen INT — that he had this pass picked off before it was ever thrown. With two receivers on that side of the formation and four Bears defenders in the vicinity, it allowed Jackson to overplay the short route and go for the interception.
I don’t know the rules of this coverage. It appears to be some kind of combination coverage because the backside corner has his eyes glued to his man (with safety help over the top) and you have the rest of the defenders with their eyes in the backfield.
Jackson appears to have the middle hook area here and, we’re guessing, a little room to be aggressive. Watch as he rolls down at the snap, breaks on the ball well before QB Ryan Fitzpatrick releases it and runs the route for WR Mike Evans. One of the easiest picks Jackson will get — and you can just tell that this was a recognition play from film study. Well-schooled from the incredible staff at Alabama, Jackson was able to translate that very well and very quickly to the NFL, it seems.
You wonder if opposing offensive coordinators will see Jackson jumping the routes with easy anticipation and try to use it against him. Starting this Sunday with Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase, who might have to resort to a little trickery in this game with his offensive line beat up.
It will be asking a lot of that Miami offensive line to pass block long enough against this Bears front to run double moves and slower-developing deep routes. But perhaps the Dolphins can move the pocket, use the play-action pass to their benefit and also mix in a flea flicker or something. Anything to prevent Jackson from making the game-changing plays he has to this point.
Both the Seahawks and Cardinals were able to take advantage of the middle of the field a few times with Jackson covering the deep half. It appears he likes to get good depth, maybe a little too much, knowing he can close fast. This is how a young Earl Thomas was able to become a star in Seattle.
But the Cardinals were able to hit Christian Kirk on a “turkey hole” grab down the sideline on Jackson’s side of the field, as well as the Seattle play we outlined above. These are still issues in his game that need cleaning up.
Defending against the Patriots’ varied passing game and the Rams’ sophisticated system later in the season will be tough chores that stress Jackson and the rest of the secondary, and the Bears still have two games left against the Vikings and Kirk Cousins (second in the NFL in passing yards) and one left against Rodgers and the Packers.
If Jackson can play disciplined football and occasionally jump a route while keeping the big shots to a minimum, we could be looking at a Pro Bowl berth for a player at a position where there appears to be a dearth of top-end talent in the league right now.