Patriots’ JC Jackson, Stephon Gilmore Are Most Dangerous Duo Of The Decade

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Patriots cornerback JC Jackson gets overshadowed by his partner in New England’s secondary, Stephon Gilmore, but it’s time we have a long conversation about the second-year pro.

Jackson leads qualified NFL cornerbacks in passer rating allowed with a 28.6 metric. He’s let up just 22 catches on 47 targets for 226 yards with a touchdown and five interceptions in 356 coverage snaps this season, per Pro Football Focus. And that touchdown probably unfairly counts against Jackson. PFF charged Jackson with the touchdown allowed on Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson’s trick-play touchdown catch in Week 13. Jackson was not tasked with “covering” Watson, he was just the defender closest to the play. And the play was a lateral, not an actual throw. The ball technically moved forward, but the play resembled a run, not a pass. Jackson has allowed a touchdown on a technicality.

But even with that “blemish,” Jackson still tops the NFL in passer rating allowed. Right below him? Gilmore, who’s let up 38 catches on 82 targets for 444 yards with no touchdowns and six interceptions, including two pick-sixes, while covering teams’ top receivers. Gilmore has let up a passer rating of just 32.8 and should be the favorite for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

No NFL team in the PFF-era (2006 and beyond) has ever had cornerbacks in those two top spots. No cornerback has ever allowed a passer rating lower than 31.1 (Casey Hayward, 2012) in a full season. Only four cornerbacks since 2006 have allowed a passer rating lower than Gilmore’s 32.8 metric.

Gilmore and Jackson not only are playing like the two best cornerbacks in the NFL, but they’re also playing like two of the best cornerbacks of the last 14 seasons. This is unbelievable stuff and a big reason why the Patriots are 11-3 with the best defense in the NFL.

And it really should not come as a major surprise that Gilmore and Jackson were the two biggest stars of the Patriots’ 34-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. Blame Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton for continuing to throw at Gilmore, but his option wasn’t much better when Jackson was on the other side of the field.

The Patriots’ first interception came early in the third quarter when Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd ran a curl. Gilmore knew what was coming, essentially ran the route for Boyd and picked off the pass with one arm.

Gilmore’s second pick came midway through the third quarter when he had outside leverage on an out pattern by Boyd. Dalton didn’t put enough zip on the ball, and Gilmore jumped the route for a pick-six. Gilmore had actually jumped the route so well that he had to reach back for the ball, already on his way toward the end zone for a 65-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Dalton finished off the game with two really bad mistakes, and that’s targeting Jackson on deep passes. Jackson is unbelievable at defending 9 routes. Bengals undersized receiver Alex Erickson ran a fade down the right sideline. Jackson had him beat the whole play, looked like the targeted receiver on the throw, high-pointed the ball and came down with the interception.

Gilmore should have picked off Dalton again midway through the fourth quarter when the Bengals QB targeted Boyd on a fade down the right sideline. Gilmore high-pointed the ball but couldn’t come down with the catch.

Dalton targeted John Ross on a go route late in the fourth quarter with Jackson in coverage. The ball was underthrown and Jackson tracked it all the way and came up with the easy snag on the run.

Not only are Gilmore and Jackson extremely sticky in coverage and hard to complete passes on, but they’re also dangerous. No cornerback duo has more combined interceptions than Gilmore and Jackson’s 11 picks. And no cornerback duo has reached that mark since 2009.

Jackson somehow isn’t a household name yet, despite playing at an exemplary level for two years now. Jackson let up just a 42 passer rating last season as a rookie on 270 coverage snaps.

There’s a very decent argument to be made that Gilmore and Jackson are not only the best cornerback duo in the NFL but also the most dangerous of the last 10 seasons. That might sound ridiculous, but numbers don’t lie.

“JC is way ahead of where he was last year,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Monday. “This year, he?s really built on his awareness on his overall fundamentals and techniques. Those two plays he made on the ball were both extremely good plays.

“But yeah, he?s done a really good job in his growth and development and improvement on the little fundamental things of his game. He was getting some penalties early in the year and he?s really worked hard to eliminate those penalties and some of the unnecessary grabbing that made it a little bit of a problem for him earlier in the year. But, he?s done an excellent job of playing good coverage without grabbing the receiver and getting a penalty, so that?s been huge for us.”

And we haven’t yet mentioned that the Patriots’ No. 3 and 4 cornerbacks, Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty, have also been stingy this season. McCourty, who’s dealing with a lingering groin injury, actually has shared the No. 2 role in the Patriots’ defense with Jackson this season and has let up a passer rating of 61.6, allowing 27 catches on 48 targets for 246 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. Jones has struggled a bit more recently, but he’s still only allowed 39 catches on 65 targets for 525 yards with four touchdowns and no picks. Jones injured his groin late in Sunday’s game.

Some more notes from our Week 15 film review:

— Defensive tackle Danny Shelton had an unreal individual effort on a fourth-down stop in the second quarter. He bullied his blocker and essentially individually made the play to force a turnover on downs. Great stuff from the former first-round pick who has played his best football this season with the Patriots.

— Belichick might not have been lying when he called Bengals running back Joe Mixon the best running back in the NFL. He proved to be extraordinarily difficult for Patriots defenders to tackle Sunday.

— Great patience by Patriots gunner Matthew Slater to make contact with Alex Erickson until the Bengals punt returner had the ball on a second-quarter punt. Slater got his hand in late and forced a muffed return. Justin Bethel charged in and laid out for the recovery. Slater is solidifying his case for a potential future Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement with some big plays this season. Bethel also had one of the best tackles on a kick return you’ll see, stopping the Bengals for a 15-yard gain out to the 12-yard line. Slater and Bethel are quite a dangerous pair, themselves.

For more grades, advanced statistics and more at Pro Football Focus, go to ProFootballFocus.com.

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