Tensions are at a recent high among Patriots fans because New England has dropped five games for the first time since 2009.
Without some help, the Patriots will be playing on wild-card weekend for the first time since 2009. The Patriots’ playoff run that year came to a screeching halt when the Baltimore Ravens upset the Patriots in the first round in Foxboro.
So, there are reasons to be concerned.
But let’s inject some positivity into the Patriots fanbase. And the biggest reason to be optimistic about the Patriots — after Sunday’s 17-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers — was the play of undrafted rookie cornerback JC Jackson.
Call this hyperbole, but Jackson might be Bill Belichick’s best undrafted find yet. The 23-year-old cornerback made his third career start Sunday and shadowed Steelers breakout wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and limited him to just four catches on 10 targets for 40 yards. Jackson allowed just one first down. He broke up a pass and was in coverage on an interception by safety Duron Harmon.
Quarterbacks have a 30.7 passer rating when targeting Jackson.
Smith-Schuster has 95 receptions for 1,274 yards with six touchdowns on the season. This was his second least productive game of the year.
Jackson was unbelievable in an ultra-difficult matchup.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger targeted Jackson on the very first play of the game. Jackson had perfect coverage down the sideline on Smith-Schuster.
Roethlisberger’s next throw to Smith-Schuster also fell incomplete. On the route, Jackson did an impressive job flipping his hips but staying on Smith-Schuster.
Jackson was in blanket coverage while the pass fell incomplete.
Jackson let up his lone first down when he was in near-flawless coverage. Smith-Schuster simply made a better play.
Smith-Schuster leaped up and caught the ball off Jackson’s helmet for a 22-yard grab.
Smith-Schuster made a 9-yard grab against Jackson on the next play, but the rookie corner did a nice job of pushing him out of bounds before the receiver could pick up a first down.
Roethlisberger targeted Jackson on consecutive plays again midway through the second quarter. The first fell short and incomplete.
The next flew over Smith-Schuster’s head and into safety Duron Harmon’s arms for an interception.
Jackson showed off his tackling and closing speed on his next target later in the second quarter. He first had to weave through traffic then double back to keep up with Smith-Schuster.
Jackson ran Smith-Schuster out of bounds before the receiver could hit the first-down marker.
Roethlisberger targeted Smith-Schuster with Jackson in coverage again on the next snap. Jackson had Smith-Schuster in his pocket, and the ball fell incomplete.
Roethlisberger didn’t throw Jackson’s way again until late in the fourth quarter. Jackson made, at the time, a game-saving pass breakup. He almost came up with an incredible interception on his signature play of the afternoon.
Smith-Schuster had the higher ground, but Jackson stuck his right arm into the receiver’s chest.
Smith-Schuster actually had the ball in his hands.
But Jackson kept fighting while the two players went to the ground and jarred the ball loose.
Here’s a closeup of the play.
Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore was nearly as impressive in coverage against Antonio Brown. Gilmore’s best play of the game actually came when he was lined up across from slot receiver Eli Rogers, leaving Jason McCourty on Brown at the top of the screen in a trips formation. Jackson was lined up across from Smith-Schuster in between McCourty-Brown and Gilmore Rogers.
Smith-Schuster ran Jackson into McCourty, taking him out of the play.
Gilmore then led Rogers into Brown and stuck his arm out to break up Roethlisberger’s pass, intended for Brown.
The ball came out of Brown’s arms.
And was caught by Harmon.
Here are some other notes from this week’s film review:
— Most of the Patriots’ run defense issues were personnel-based. The Patriots were content to stay in their dime defense with six defensive backs on the field for most of the game. That left safety Patrick Chung as the Patriots’ second-level defender. The Steelers combatted this by using patience in the run game, waiting for holes to be created up front by their impressive offensive line. Then there was plenty of room to run through the Patriots’ second level.
— Of Tom Brady’s 36 passing attempts, only 11 came 10-plus yards downfield. Brady did the majority of his work throwing behind the line of scrimmage or from 0-to-9 yards downfield.
— Brady appeared to have running back James White wide open on second-and-15 and third-and-fifteen on the Patriots’ final drive. Brady threw to tight end Rob Gronkowski on both plays. The Patriots sent four receivers on deep routes on all three of their final offensive plays.
— Penalties killed the Patriots all game. A holding penalty on Marcus Cannon midway through the fourth quarter when New England was trailing 14-10 was perhaps the most costly. The Patriots had the ball on first-and-goal from Pittsburgh’s 5-yard line. The penalty pushed them back to the 15-yard line. Brady was picked off while trying to throw the ball away two snaps later.
— Another costly penalty came early in the second quarter. Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones exchanged some hand fighting with Rogers down the sideline. A late flag was thrown on Jones, moving the Steelers from the Patriots’ 43-yard line to the 17-yard line. Roethlisberger threw a 17-yard touchdown to Brown over McCourty on the next play.
Thumbnail photo via Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports Images