- Laurel Pfahler Contributing Writer
A rough season for the Cincinnati Bengals has produced at least one bright spot.
Bouncing back from a lost rookie campaign, cornerback William Jackson III has proven worthy of the team’s 2016 first-round draft pick.
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Jackson missed all of last season with a torn pectoral muscle suffered in training camp and hasn’t lost a step despite the long layoff from competition. Not only did he gradually work his way into the starting lineup as one of the team’s top defensive backs, but Jackson also has become arguably one of the best corners in the NFL, allowing less than 40 percent of the passes thrown into his coverage area to be caught, according to Pro Football Focus.
He looks to cap off his first season on a high note Sunday in Baltimore as the Bengals look to play spoiler to the Ravens’ playoff chances.
“Early in the year we were trying to find ways to not overdo it with him but give him the exposure and experience to see if he was ready to play, and I think he’s proven that as time has gone on,” Bengals secondary coach Kevin Coyle said. “Sometimes it was through someone else being banged up he got more snaps, but all of a sudden you could see, yes, he can be special. Consequently, as the year has progressed, he’s proven to be one of our more solid cover players, and I think he’s just going to get better and better.”
Jackson has played in 14 games with four starts, replacing injured Adam Jones at right corner the past three weeks. He’s been in for 58 percent of the defensive snaps, including six games with more than 85 percent of the playing time, and he has 26 tackles, one sack and one interception returned 75 yards for a touchdown.
The 6-foot, 187-pound former University of Houston standout said missing all of last year helped prepare him better for this season in terms of learning the system, getting to know his teammates and improving the mental aspect of his game through film study. It also lit a little fire in him once he finally got back on the field.
“It was definitely tough because I’m a competitor and I want to be out there on the field,” said Jackson, who missed practice Wednesday with a knee injury. “For me to not be able to showcase what I could do was real frustrating. There was a chip on my shoulder. I didn’t pick to get hurt. It just happened, so I wanted to go out and show the fans and the coaches what I could do.”
The coaches knew what he was capable of, but college success doesn’t always translate into production in the NFL. Jackson led the nation in 2015 with a school-record 23 pass breakups and 28 passes defensed to go along with a career-best five interceptions.
Coyle said Jackson’s coverage skills are exactly what the Bengals hoped they would be, though. He needs to continue to work on being more physical, Coyle noted, but head coach Marvin Lewis said that’s the biggest adjustment for first-year players.
Lewis expects big leaps in Year 2 for Jackson because of that.
“It ends up being a lot of football, a lot more than I think young guys ever anticipate,” Lewis said. “Early in the year you’re trying to figure out why they are sharing snaps so you can get them all through, and then it comes to, ‘You’re the guy,’ and you’re spending a lot more time across the hall in the training room because it does take a toll on your body. I think No. 1 when you go into the offseason after playing your first year of NFL football, you have a different look at the offseason, of which you need to prepare for physically to get ready to get on that horse again and get going. It’s a whole different point of view, and he didn’t get to experience that as a rookie.”
Jackson is building a reputation as a lockdown corner, and quarterbacks are more hesitant to throw it his way in recent weeks. He’s hoping for some chances to make plays Sunday against a much-improved Ravens offense since the opener against Baltimore.
“I want them to keep throwing it my way,” Jackson said. “I want some pick-sixes, but they’ve been showing me respect lately. I just want a chance to compete and showcase what I can do.”
If Coyle is right, he’ll be gaining even more respect in the future.
“He has a very high ceiling, and a lot of that has to do with the fact he’s got exceptional speed and recovery ability, which are two really important attributes to play the corner position,” Coyle said. “And, he’s very competitive. He’s very enthusiastic and deep down, he believes he can cover anybody. That’s a great trait to have. Willie is a very talented guy.”