No defensive player has more touchdowns than the five totaled by Eddie Jackson since 2016. Quick reminder: Jackson entered the NFL in 2017.
That fact remains true even as Jackson not only is without a touchdown in 2019, but is without an interception or fumble recovery 11 games into the season.
“I find a thrill off getting the ball and getting a chance to get in the end zone,” Jackson said. “That’s what really excites me the most, when I get the ball in my hands with a chance to score. So that’s just want I gotta continue to try to do.
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It’s not like Jackson has completely lost that ballhawking knack that defined his first two years in the NFL, including an All-Pro season in 2018, though. There are a few factors in play here, starting with this:
Jackson is playing in the box more than he ever has in the NFL, and as a result is playing free safety — where he’s able to use his range and ball skills best — significantly less.
Per Pro Football Focus, here are Jackson’s snap percentages as an in-the-box safety vs. as a free safety in his career:
“He's a playmaker,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “Whether it's in the deep parts of the field where he's not really getting tested a whole lot, so when he's down in the box and he's coming on pressures and things like that, some fire zone stuff, he's doing a good job there. He's a playmaker and he can make plays and change a game for us.”
Pagano interchanges his safeties quite a bit, with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix playing more deep safety than Jackson but still getting down into the box on a regular basis. Jackson, though, has already played more snaps as a slot corner (149) than he did in either of his first two years in the league.
But that has not resulted in an increase in targets — in fact, Jackson is being targeted about one time fewer per game in 2019 than he was in 2018, when he had six interceptions.
The point being: Jackson has not had as many opportunities for game-changing picks this year.
“I just feel like whatever I need to do for the team to win, that’s the most important thing about it,” Jackson said. “Just do my part so the team can win. Other than that, it really don’t matter.
“But obviously as a player you want to create turnovers. I like scoring touchdowns, so that’s why I like getting the ball in my hands. But I haven’t been able to do that yet this year, so far, but I feel like it’s still coming.”
Jackson is not making excuses for his lack of turnovers, though he did force a fumble when he ripped the ball out of Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley’s hands on the first play of the Bears’ Week 11 trip to California. Opposing offenses, though, are certainly more cognizant of where Jackson is on a given play given how effective he was at jumping routes and ranging for interceptions last year.
This, too, is where Pagano’s defense has required Jackson to be a different player in 2019 than he was in 2017 and 2018 under Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell’s watch. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially given how hard Jackson has hit over the last few weeks.
“I feel like I’ve been more physical this year than I have in the last couple years,” Jackson said. “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.”
2019 will probably wind up looking like a disappointing year for Jackson in terms of his interception total. But he has four tackles for a loss, one more than he had in 2017 and 2018. Run defense isn’t sexy, but it’s important — especially for Jackson, who entered the league with questions about how physical he could be as a tackler. Jackson already has more tackles for a loss this year (four) than he had in his previous two seasons (three).
“I enjoy going in the box and playing like that,” Jackson said. “It’s fun to me. I don’t really look at it like ‘oh, I gotta do that this week.’ I have fun. That’s all it’s about, having fun playing the game.”
Jackson has answered those questions in 2019. With an eye on 2020, when his friend Clinton-Dix likely will not be back in Chicago, that Jackson has proved he can be a hard-hitting, physical tackler should only give the Bears more confidence about his future. Signing Jackson to a contract extension should be part of Ryan Pace’s offseason checklist, after all.
And if/when the Bears do ink Jackson to a second contract to keep him in Chicago for the long term, they can do so knowing he's developed into a physical in-the-box presence — and still has the range to make plays on the ball, even if that hasn’t showed up in 2019.
“(It’s) not only an impact for the defense, but an impact for himself,” Clinton-Dix said. “We know that Eddie can get the ball. We know he can score touchdowns. But to see him in that box making hard tackles one on one, blitzing, just making TFLs — that’s awesome to see.”