This season was as hard on cornerback William Jackson as anyone in the Cincinnati Bengals’ locker room, but when the team wasn’t able to turn things around at a breaking point earlier this month, the first-year starter did on an individual level.
Coming off a breakout first year on the field, Jackson had high expectations as he stepped into a full-time starter’s role. However, frustration quickly set in as he couldn’t get into a rhythm the first three months of the season.
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Adjusting to new coordinator Teryl Austin proved more challenging than he anticipated, and then nine games in, he was forced to re-calibrate when Marvin Lewis took over the defense. Jackson finally found his comfort zone in December and has been one of the top corners in the league over the last four weeks, according to ProFootballFocus.com’s grading system.
He looks to finish strong against the likes of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster as the Bengals (6-9) travel to play the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-6-1) in the finale Sunday. Pittsburgh is still in the playoff hunt and needs a win for a chance at the postseason.
“It’s been up and down, going to the new system, then back to the old system,” Jackson said. “It’s just going back out there and knowing I’m comfortable like I was last year.”
The last four games Jackson earned an 82.3 overall grade according to PFF, ranking fifth among the 98 cornerbacks with 100-plus defensive snaps in the four-week span. He earned a season-high grade of 86.5 against the Los Angeles Chargers on Dec. 9 while allowing just two catches for nine yards against five targets from Phillip Rivers.
Jackson said he was just trying to get back to playing like he did last year, his first on the field in the NFL. The 2016 first-round draft pick had missed his entire rookie season because of pectoral surgery.
“(I learned) to just go out there and compete like I always did,” Jackson said. “There’s nothing different — just do what I always do at a high level.”
Jackson said the switch to Austin affected him mentally more than anything, as he found himself second-guessing himself. Part of the turnaround has to do with feeling more comfortable in Lewis’ system, which is more like what the Bengals were doing in Jackson’s first two years under defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.
The Bengals also have gone to playing more man defense, rather than their traditional zone, and utilizing the talents of the high-press corners they drafted — Jackson, Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick.
“I knew the old (system),” Jackson said. “I was there for two years instead of one. I knew it like the back of my hand. The defense we are running now, I actually know it so I actually can play loose and free.”
Lewis said he has seen a lot of progress from Jackson the second half of the season, even if it didn’t start showing up until the last few weeks.
“William is really understanding what playing cornerback is all about,” Lewis said. “There’s more to it than just lining up on your guy. You have to understand the changes that occur within the play, the scheme and the coverage. He has to keep adjusting to that throughout.
“… It’s part of any development for a young player.”
»LOOKING BACK: Jackson excels after lost rookie season
Jackson, a Houston native, is still looking for his first interception this season, and he could get opportunity Sunday as Brown and Smith-Schuster are among the rare wide receiver tandems to record 100 catches or more in the same season.
That means Ben Roethlisberger will be targeting the Bengals’ secondary plenty, even if James Conner, who has missed three straight games with an ankle injury, returns to play as expected. Smith-Schuster leads the Steelers with 1,389 yards and six touchdowns on 106 receptions, and Brown adds 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns on 104 catches.
None of the Bengals cornerbacks have an interception this season, making them one of just two teams in the league without a cornerback pick.
Jackson wants to be the player responsible for shutting down elite receivers, so he looks forward to that opportunity if it comes Sunday. He has 38 tackles and 13 passes defensed in 15 starts.
“I really wanted to be that guy,” Jackson said. “I wanted to be one of those guys that holds the No. 1 guy and travels and has fun. When you have one job, all you have to do is lockdown one person, it’s a fun task. For the coaches to have that much respect to give you that it’s always in the back of your mind to have a great game.”