PITTSBURGH — One silver lining from the New England Patriots’ costly loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers was the continued emergence of undrafted rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson.
Jackson, who made his third consecutive start Sunday, was tasked with shadowing Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster throughout the game while fellow corners Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones rotated through different coverages on Antonio Brown and the rest of Pittsburgh’s receiving corps.
Smith-Schuster entered the weekend ranked fifth in the NFL in receiving yards, but he was largely held in check by the feisty first-year pro, finishing with four catches on 10 targets for 40 yards in Pittsburgh’s 17-10 victory at Heinz Field.
“I felt happy about (the matchup with Smith-Schuster),” Jackson said after the game. “I prepared all week. He’s a great receiver, and I just had to compete.”
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tested Jackson’s mettle early, throwing in his direction on the game’s first offensive play (deep incompletion down the right sideline) and later on three consecutive snaps during Pittsburgh’s third possession.
“Even on the first play, they tried to go deep,” Jackson said. “But I was ready.”
The third of those four targets resulted in a 22-yard completion to Smith-Schuster, who beat tight coverage to make a highlight-reel catch. Smith-Schuster added a 9-yard catch moments later on the final play of the first quarter but was effectively erased by Jackson over the final 45 minutes of play,
Roethlisberger’s final five passes to Smith-Schuster with Jackson in coverage yielded just one catch for 8 yards. One was broken up by Jackson on third-and-6 with less than three minutes remaining, affording the Patriots’ offense one final attempt to tie the game, and another was intercepted by safety Duron Harmon.
“Playing corner, you find out who you really are when somebody catches balls on you and they keep coming back, and you keep fighting and making plays,” said Gilmore, who helped hold Brown to four catches on seven targets for 49 yards. “That’s what he’s like.”
Jackson has been a revelation in New England’s secondary since becoming a legitimate defensive contributor two months into the season. According to Pro Football Focus, opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 46.5 when targeting the Maryland product, completing 18 of 35 passes for 213 yards and no touchdowns with two interceptions.
Since he became a starter in Week 13, Jackson has given up nine catches on 18 targets for 86 yards and has more pass breakups (two) than 20-plus-yard receptions allowed (one).
“Every week, his role is expanding, and he’s been able to play lights out,” Harmon said. “Smith-Schuster has been putting on a show all year, and for (Jackson) to go out there and play the way he did, it speaks volumes (about) the type of player he is and the type of player he’s going to become.”
For more grades, advanced statistics and more at Pro Football Focus, go to ProFootballFocus.com.