By Chris Emma—
CHICAGO (CBS) – One year ago Sunday, then-Alabama senior safety Eddie Jackson was returning a punt with open field ahead when a Texas A&M tackler wrapped him from behind. Jackson’s left ankle buckled awkwardly as his body was ripped down. He briefly stood up, then went back down.
Jackson was carted off with a broken left leg. His college career was suddenly over, and his NFL stock was in jeopardy. The long road back was challenging, which made Sunday at Soldier Field even sweeter.
A year removed from the injury, Jackson returned to the open field twice, scooping up a fumble and returning it 75 yards for a score in the first quarter and then picking off a Cam Newton pass and running it back 76 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. Jackson’s plays proved to be the difference in the Bears’ 17-3 victory over the Panthers, and he became the first player in NFL history to score multiple defensive touchdowns of 75 yards or more in a game.
“It’s a blessing,” Jackson said of his day.
Jackson flashed his talents and knack for taking advantage of an opportune moment on his big plays. In the first quarter, Newton ran an option pitch play but misfired to the intended target. The ball was muffed in a scrum and squirted toward the sidelines. Rather than diving on the ball, Jackson had the instincts to recognize his angle and the green ahead. He positioned himself for the scoop and ran it for the score.
One quarter later, cornerback Prince Amukamara broke up a slant pass intended to Kelvin Benjamin and the ball hung in the air. Jackson started the play nearly 15 yards away but covered ground quickly, hauling it in and taking it the distance on a return that included a juke of Newton along the sideline.
“We knew if we could break on the ball, we’d be able to get some tips on those throws, so that was something we were really on top of in the week of practice,” Jackson said. “Prince made a great play. I owe it all to him and I was just able to make something happen out there.”
Added linebacker Pernell McPhee: “It was a hell of a play by 39.”
Jackson was selected in the fourth round of the NFL Draft in April, a slot that doesn’t adequately reflect his talent. But after the fractured leg, Jackson’s stock took a major hit. He entered the Bears’ offseason program still recovering from the injury and slowly returning to health. Jackson credited the team’s training staff for helping him mend.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace had no reservations in selecting Jackson, because he believed in the ball skills shown in his film at Alabama. There was plenty of evidence from Jackson’s junior season, which brought six interceptions, two returned for touchdowns. He also had a pick-six as a senior and also returned a pair of punts for scores before the injury last season.
While much of the world learned of Jackson on Sunday, those who followed his career at Alabama surely weren’t surprised by his record-breaking performance. Jackson’s Bears teammates weren’t at all surprised either.
“I see it every day in practice,” McPhee said. “He’s going to be special. That’s a special kid.”
Jackson’s two touchdowns set the Bears up with a 14-0 lead in the second quarter. They took a 17-3 lead into halftime and then operated a conservative offense from there, looking to drain the clock and rely on the defense.
Prior to last Sunday in Baltimore, the Bears had forced just three turnovers all season. They’ve won two games since thanks to six takeaways, including three they returned for touchdowns. In the past couple seasons, these were opportunities the Bears didn’t take advantage of. The team finished dead last with 11 takeaways last season and had 17 in 2015. That’s a big part of the reason Jackson was brought in.
Though there would be a rehabilitation process for him, the Bears wanted Jackson because his playmaking skills were what they desperately needed. They wanted him to be an important piece to a defense that hadn’t been opportune.
A year removed from a gruesome injury, Jackson was back in the open field with the ball in his hands, delivering for a team that believed this day would come.