What Happened to DeSean Jackson After Hot Start to Season?

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What Happened to DeSean Jackson After Hot Start to Season?
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Two weeks ago, DeSean Jackson was the NFL’s leading receiver with 297 yards and probably choosing between the scenic trails or swimming with the dolphins for his free day in Honolulu this January.

The Philadelphia Eagles offense went stagnant in each of the past two games though, and any designs the explosive wide receiver has on reaching the Pro Bowl this season are stuck in the bog along with it. Since coming up with 16 receptions and two touchdowns to go with his almost three bills against Washington and San Diego, Jackson has just five catches for 96 yards and no scores over his last two outings.

Jackson’s lack of production is more than a personal problem and an assault on his frequent-flyer miles, however. The Birds’ aerial attack goes as he does now more than ever.

The six-year veteran’s career has never been one of week-to-week consistency but peaks and valleys, and without Jeremy Maclin (torn ACL) to help carry the load, there is a noticeable void in the offense on Jackson’s lighter days. Riley Cooper (8 REC, 93 YDS, 1 TD) certainly isn’t keeping defensive backs honest, so if not Jackson, then who?

If head coach Chip Kelly and quarterback Michael Vick intend to jump-start the Eagles offense, they need to figure out a way to get DJacc back on track first. The million dollar question is how?

Contrary to popular opinion, the reason defenses have been able to contain DeSean Jackson these past two weeks has less to do with the coverage using a safety over the top than the change they’ve made at the line of scrimmage. It all starts with taking away his cushion.

A cushion of eight or nine yards was the norm from cornerbacks for Washington and San Diego. Generally the only exception was inside the red zone.

As you can see, the same goes for the slot, where Jackson is lining up a fair amount of the time these days. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription only), Jackson is running 29.5 percent of his routes out of the slot—up from 17.3 a season ago.

Kansas City played tighter to the line of the scrimmage than previous defenses, but by the time it emerged from the locker room after halftime, the coverage had evolved to a full-on press. Note the single safety over the top—he’s not offering much in the way of assistance on anything outside the numbers.

Andy Reid drafted Jackson and spent enough years around him to know the score. Denver picks up on that simple fact and does the same. Even in the slot it's not giving him much space—at least while the game was still in reach. By the way, the defender is locked in pure man-to-man.

Alright, so we’ve established Kansas City and Denver implemented more press cover tactics. Was it a successful strategy?

The press did help take away some of the short and intermediate hitches that are easy pitch and catch when the corner is playing 10 yards off. Here’s a play from Washington where Jackson runs a simple five-yard in, then has enough separation to run through the secondary for a gain of 26.

Look where the cornerback is relative to Jackson as the receiver is coming out of his break. Even if the pass is perfect, there’s a good chance the defender will jar this ball loose.

Not sure if it’s DeSean’s route running or what, but easy throws for gains of four or five at minimum suddenly become tightly contested plays. Again, only single safety over the top for the whole defense, so while the corner knows he has some help, it’s still his play to make.

An eight-yard cushion didn’t exactly stop Jackson from going deep either. Here’s a big over the middle where the All-Pro receiver actually turns his man inside out. Nice concept too with Riley Cooper going over the top, preventing the high safety from breaking on the route earlier.

While Jackson did beat some press coverage as it was applied by San Diego’s corners, he enjoyed no such luck versus Kansas City and Denver. Does it look like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie—one of the fastest defensive backs in the NFL—needs any help? No, it does not.

And why was the press so successful? What doesn’t show up in these still shots is how jamming the receiver at the line can throw the whole play out of whack.

Jackson often needed to make a move or fight through contact to break free, which can mess with the timing between quarterback and receiver—not to mention it gives the pass rush extra moments to disrupt the play in the backfield. There were also a number of times where a bigger, more physical corner was able to reroute the diminutive DeSean entirely.

A good way to avoid press coverage is to put the receiver in motion before the play. That said, Jackson also demonstrated against San Diego that he can beat the press when it’s an inferior corner. Brandon Flowers for the Chiefs and Rodgers-Cromartie for the Broncos are probably two of the better press corners in the NFL today, and they definitely earned their paychecks against the Eagles.

Whether the New York Giants will be able to duplicate the success of those defenses this Sunday is another story. Corey Webster missed the last two weeks with a hip injury, while Aaron Ross and Jayron Hosley both left their Week 4 matchup in Kansas City with injuries. It might be a depleted secondary to begin with.

Therein lies the problem. Pressing DeSean Jackson at the line of scrimmage is a great idea up until the moment he runs right by his man. Until Riley Cooper or somebody else can step up in Philadelphia’s offense though, it’s a risk defenses are likely to continue to be willing to run.

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