Carolina Panthers rookie cornerback Donte Jackson is super fast, hyper-competitive, confident and smart, all qualities an NFL corner needs.
But for the Panthers, those traits are simply the entry fee.
Defensive coordinator Eric Washington doesn’t just expect his corners to cover, he expects them to assist against the run, especially against shifty backs who use the flat and find cutback lanes well. He expects Panthers cornerbacks to swarm to the ball and tackle with discipline.
So after Jackson’s first NFL start in Sunday’s 16-8 victory over Dallas, Washington didn’t cite Jackson’s coverage as his best play.
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Instead, it was a one-on-one cutback tackle in the first quarter, when Jackson wrapped up prolific 225-pound back Ezekiel Elliott and prevented a potential long gain.
Veteran linebacker Luke Kuechly sprinted toward Jackson to celebrate the stop.
“(He said) ‘Keep going, man, keep going,’” Jackson said. “Get somebody who cheers for you like Luke does for his teammates, man. Luke is a great teammate. He’s just excited for guys who are making plays when he’s not making the play.”
Washington and Kuechly were excited, as were Jackson’s veteran teammates, because it was a play that showed Jackson buying into Carolina’s system.
“It really just showed that he was ready,” safety Da’Norris Searcy said.
Searcy drew the receiver’s block on the play to clog the initial lane and force Elliott to cut back. At that point, it was about trusting the rookie.
“Once the receiver grabbed me, I was trying to peek over my shoulder to see if he was going to come make the tackle,” Searcy said. “Once I heard the crowd reaction and I saw him get up hyped, I saw the guys like Luke and Mike run over and congratulate him ... I knew he stepped up and made a big play for our defense.”
Plus, Jackson made a big statement to the pre-draft scouts and analysts who doubted his ability to be a tackle corner, because he is 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds.
According to the NFL’s newly released data pool, the Panthers lead the league in players under 6 feet tall, with 14.
So it’s fair to assume that what Jackson’s teammates also loved about his big, physical play was a little guy bringing the stick.
“I definitely feel his pain when it comes to that,” said veteran nickel cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who is 5-foot-9. “Me, being doubted my whole career like, ‘Oh, he’s just a nickel. Oh, he can’t play corner. He can’t play this. Oh, he doesn’t belong in the NFL. He’s too small.’
“And if you look at Donte, a lot of people say, ‘Oh, he’s only 178 pounds. He’s not going to be able to tackle these guys who are 200, 220.’ He’s proving them wrong. He’s going out there, he’s making plays. He played very well last week and I’m expecting big things from him this year.”
Against the Falcons’ shifty running backs, Jackson will need to continue to show that potential.
He’ll also likely get tested in the air by quarterback Matt Ryan and head coach Dan Quinn, who is very familiar with Jackson after Atlanta had him so high on their draft board this spring.
“I think I recognized that he was a real competitor right away and one of those players that just wasn’t going to back down,” Quinn said Wednesday. “It just came across that way, not in an arrogant way, but in a guy that really wanted to fight and challenge you. I remember meeting him at the combine, he wanted to have the fastest 40-yard dash time. ... (He said), ‘Oh, I’m doing it.’
“’You could sense it wasn’t coming across in a fake way or a fake tough guy. He was really trying to compete and battle.”
Jackson will bring the same energy on Sunday in Atlanta.
“I’m a competitor,” he said. “So if I’m asked to tackle, if I’m asked to cover, if I’m asked to blitz, anything to make this defense work and make our system work, I’m here to do it.”