By Chris Emma—
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) – As a young safety striving to be great, Eddie Jackson looked to the example of Ed Reed, one of the game’s all-time best at his position.
Jackson has watched how Reed can break on a pass before it’s even thrown and make game-changing plays look so easy. It takes incredible physical gifts, but Jackson also recognized what else made Reed such a special player.
“His instincts,” Jackson said. “You see how natural he is lined up, how he breaks on the ball, when he comes down to make the tackle, how he fits the run. All the little things, you just pay attention to them.”
The rookie Jackson has been exactly what the Bears had hoped when they took a chance on him in the fourth round. His draft stock plummeted after suffering a broken leg returning a punt at Alabama last year. One year to the date of that injury, Jackson was returned a fumble and interception for touchdowns in a 17-3 win over the Panthers on Oct. 22.
On the fumble, Jackson’s instincts directed him to make the big play. He angled toward the ball as it squirted toward the sidelines and instead of falling on it, he scooped before it went out of bounds and went 75 yards for the score. A quarter later, he aligned himself for a deflected pass and returned it 76 yards to the end zone.
Jackson has seven defensive touchdowns to reach Reed’s impressive career mark, but he shares something in common with the NFL legend.
“He can see a lot of things when they’re going on in the deep part of the field,” Bears defensive backs coach Ed Donatell said.
After a long offseason recovery that continued with the Bears, Jackson returned to the field in training camp healthy and ready to compete for the starting job. The Bears have been searching for starters at safety for the better part of a decade since Mike Brown departed.
Veteran Quintin Demps was slated in to start at safety, and the other spot was up for grabs. Jackson earned his place, showing ball skills early into training camp. His play-recognition abilities stood out to the Bears coaching staff pretty quickly.
From there, Jackson showed he could be trusted playing center field in the Bears’ defense. Demps then broke his arm in late September, making Jackson’s presence even more important.
“He has great football makeup, and he’s learned our system very quickly,” Bears coach John Fox said.
Jackson’s natural instincts are clear to Donatell, but the longtime defensive backs coach also admires the preparation that Jackson puts into each game. Jackson credits that to his football upbringing with Alabama, a program that runs itself like an NFL organization.
He can break open the iPad and spot the similarities the Packers present offensively with Brett Hundley at quarterback instead of Aaron Rodgers and also weigh where the young Hundley may be vulnerable to a mistake.
The first eight games of Jackson’s NFL career have gone well. The two touchdowns are the highlights, but his coaches on defense appreciate the way that Jackson’s steady presence at safety has shaped their defense.
Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has made calls with confidence knowing well that Jackson can be trusted in coverage. The next step for Jackson is improving as a run defender – something he has scouted in players like Reed and Earl Thomas.
“I just want to improve any way I can,” Jackson said.
There’s a belief at Halas Hall that the Bears have something special at safety with Jackson. But he isn’t close to satisfied, offering a middling grade to his first eight games: C+.
Jackson has his sights set on becoming great.