Expectations were tempered for Chicago Bears safety Eddie Jackson when the team took him in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Touted as a potential first- or second-round pick heading into his final season at Alabama, Jackson broke his leg during the season, forcing him to spend much of the season on the sidelines. The thought was the young safety would need a little bit of time to adjust to the NFL world coming off the injury, yet he did more than enough to secure the starting free safety job during training camp.
During Saturday’s loss to the Detroit Lions, Jackson quietly did something no other player has done since Luke Kuechly’s rookie season with the Carolina Panthers.
NFL Research noted that Jackson’s 57 tackles, two tackles and three fumble recoveries this season make him the first rookie with 50-plus tackles, two-plus interceptions and three-plus forced fumbles since Kuechly’s rookie season in 2012. The talented linebacker also won Defensive Rookie of the year that season.
Kuechly of course has gone on to become one of the best defenders in the entire NFL. He’s made five-straight Pro Bowls, is a three-time first-team All-Pro, won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2012 and won the Defensive Player of the Year award the following season.
Jackson is far from Kuechly’s status in the NFL, but considering how much the Bears have struggled to find answers at the safety position, it is nice to see him continue to develop at a high level.
Kuechly easily won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012, but it will be much harder for Jackson to earn that nod. With fellow defensive backs Marshon Lattimore and Tre’Davious White playing at a high level it will be difficult for Jackson to sneak into the top billing for the award unless he puts together a magical two-game stretch to cap off the season.
Even if he doesn’t win an award, Jackson has proven to be one of the best draft picks for general manager Ryan Pace this season.
Pressure has been Steve Wilks’ calling card since taking over as defensive coordinator before the 2017 season.
And it was one of his many blitzes that created the takeaway that completely changed the tenor of Sunday’s game against the Jets.
The Panthers were trailing 20-18 when the Jets started a drive from their own 46-yard line with 12:58 remaining.
After linebacker Luke Kuechly stoned running back Bilal Powell for a 1-yard loss, Wilks dialed up a safety blitz for Kurt Coleman on second down.
Coleman occupied the right tackle and fullback, allowing defensive end Wes Horton to rush inside and power through running back Elijah McGuire to get immediate pressure on quarterback Josh McCown.
“Before McCown could really even throw the ball I was on top of him,” Horton said.
In an effort to minimize the damage, McCown tried to toss the ball away. Instead, he maximized the damage, fumbling as Horton wrestled him to the ground.
“Obviously, in hindsight I wish I would’ve tucked it and ate it,” McCown said.
Kuechly was watching this unfold from the middle of the field, and he sprang to action as he saw the ball leave McCown’s grasp.
“Wes made a great move. He was in there super fast,” Kuechly said. “I saw the ball pop out and they just tell us to always run to the ball no matter where it is.”
Run to the ball on defense and good things happen – that’s the old adage, one coaches preach constantly.
Kuechly did his part and made his own luck.
“Luckily, it squirted right to me,” he said.
The ball bounced away from a pile of players and Kuechly arrived on the scene at the perfect time to pick it up in stride and race to the end zone for a 34-yard score, giving the Panthers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“When we got to the sideline I told him, ‘Big time players make big time plays in big time games,’ and I consider this to be a big time game for us,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “That was a huge play. Wes did a great job of getting it out and Luke was able to scoop and score.”
The fumble return was the first defensive touchdown for Carolina this season.
And it shocks no one that it came courtesy of Kuechly.
“It never surprises me that he knows exactly where to be,” Davis said.