First, he must hold his ground in the backfield as a pass protector, either to pick up a blitzer or throw a chip block on an edge rusher to help one of the offensive tackles.
Then, as long as he isn’t engaged one-on-one with a blitzer, he can slip out into the pass pattern as a “checkdown” receiver, or safety valve for quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Since entering the NFL as a second-round draft pick in 2007, Jackson has developed into the most reliable Green Bay running back at handling that first responsibility. Now in his fourth season, he’s suddenly becoming awfully productive at the second task, too.
“He’s been very, very solid,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “He’s been a real asset in the pass game. He’s caught the ball well, and he’s made a couple guys miss.”
Take last Sunday’s game at Minnesota. The Vikings didn’t blitz Rodgers a whole heck of a lot, so Jackson was often sneaking out of the backfield to find some open space in case Rodgers needed him, which he did four times to the tune of 38 yards.
That marked the fifth time in the last six games that Jackson has caught at least three passes and gained at least 25 receiving yards. In that time, he has already established a new career high for receiving yards in a season with 231, and he’s one reception short of his career high of 30 set in 2008.
Granted, some of those receptions in recent weeks have been designed screen passes where Jackson is the primary target. But plenty of them have been of the checkdown variety as well, allowing the offense to still gain positive yardage when the throws downfield aren’t there. It’s just another way Jackson has expanded his game since becoming the team’s No. 1 running back in the wake of Ryan Grant’s season-ending injury back in Week 1.
“I think they have one of those connections where certainly Aaron might look for him or he might say something to him right before the play, depending on his reads and progressions and everything,” running backs coach Edgar Bennett said. “It’s making sure we’re sound from a protection standpoint and being where we’re supposed to be and then releasing into the route. I do think they’re on the same page and you’re seeing those two guys be extremely productive on the checkdowns.”
The value of that role was no more evident than on the Packers’ scoring drive in the final minute of the first half at the Metrodome.
Leading 10-3, the Packers took over at their own 47 following a Tramon Williams interception and had 1 minute, 3 seconds on the clock, with three timeouts. On the third play of the drive, from the Minnesota 34, Rodgers didn’t have anyone open, so he dumped it off to Jackson, who broke a tackle in the middle of the field, fighting to get to the sideline. He nearly got out of bounds but still gained 7 yards to at least give the team a manageable field-goal try before being brought down.
The Packers used their second timeout. Then two snaps later, with 17 seconds left from the Minnesota 18, Rodgers again dumped it to Jackson off to the right and it looked like he might just hop out of bounds. But he accelerated along the sideline and barreled into a couple of defenders, nearly scoring before going out on the 3 with 9 seconds left.
A crucial touchdown followed on the next snap, a 3-yard fade to James Jones, and the Packers had a 17-3 lead they would expand after receiving the opening kickoff of the second half. Jackson had provided 22 of the 53 yards on the hurry-up drive when he was nothing but Rodgers’ last resort.
“He turned those into big plays,” Bennett said. “You saw the guy breaking tackles, giving tremendous effort to try to get the ball out of bounds. And then you also saw him be violent on the boundary, taking pride in that, to try to get the ball in the end zone. That was certainly good to see, when you talk about doing it the right way.”
Bennett is a stickler for fundamentals, so naturally Jackson – who has had no other position coach in the NFL – is as fundamentally sound as they come. His hands have proven to be incredibly reliable as he’s rarely if ever dropped a catchable ball. He has 29 receptions this season on 31 passes targeted for him, an impressively efficient ratio.
The value of that can easily be overlooked when Jackson is only averaging 8.0 yards per reception. But there may be nothing more deflating for an offense than when it has to settle for the checkdown pass, only to fail to connect.
That happened to the Vikings on Sunday. Trailing 24-3 but with still more than a quarter to go, Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson slipped out into the right flat for a checkdown from quarterback Brett Favre, and he had just one defender and potentially a ton of open space in front of him. But he dropped the pass, the Vikings punted two plays later, and they never mounted a rally.
“You see a lot of guys that have drops in those situations when they try to look and see what the defense is doing, instead of not taking anything for granted,” Bennett said. “Catch the ball first, and then react to the defense. It comes down to that focus and concentration.”
From there, when he’s in the open field after a catch, Jackson also does a pretty good job getting past the first tackler. On running plays with less space to work with, Jackson’s per-carry average in games has fluctuated from as low as 1.7 yards per carry (Week 3, Chicago) to as high as 11.5 (Week 5, Washington). But he’s more consistent at making the first guy miss as a receiver, when generally that first guy is someone smaller than a defensive lineman.
“When you’re on the second level and in space, you have to win those one-on-one battles,” Bennett said. “We had some we did not win and I know he’s kicking himself and we’re kicking ourselves about, but we’ll improve in those areas and we take pride in winning that one-on-one battle.”
Jackson takes pride in any role he’s asked to perform in Green Bay’s offense, and it’s games like last Sunday’s that show how valuable he is despite a rough day in the rushing department (14 carries, 28 yards, 2.0 avg.). He not only had the two receptions on the TD drive late in the first half, he had two more checkdown receptions in the third quarter that both picked up first downs.
Much like pass blocking, working as the checkdown receiver isn’t going to generate a lot of glory and notoriety for a running back, unless he takes a short pass and breaks it for a long touchdown. Whether that’s yet to come for Jackson, time will tell.
But in the meantime, he’ll make the most of any chance he gets as Rodgers’ security blanket, whether in front of him in protection or to his side as a receiving option.
“His approach has always been whatever we ask him to do he’s going to try to be the best at that, and he’s excelled in those areas, as far as making sure no one touches our quarterback, being productive in the run game or being productive catching the football out of the backfield,” Bennett said. “Whenever we need a play done, he jumps in there, and what more can you say about a guy like that who certainly puts the team first and takes the blue-collar approach to things and shows tremendous work ethic and pride in his job.”