For Unheralded Players, the Super Bowl Can Make or Break a Career

Thursday February 4th, 2016

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — A big Super Bowl performance for a looming free agent can be worth several extra million dollars. Just ask Dexter Jackson, Desmond Howard or Larry Brown.

This year’s impending bank-breaker is Broncos defensive tackle Malik Jackson. The fourth-year pro plays in the penumbra of several spotlights: Von Miller’s, DeMarcus Ware’s, and even that of Derek Wolfe, who entered the NFL as a second-round pick the same year Jackson came in as a fifth-rounder from Tennessee.

Jackson’s reputation will soar when free agency begins in March. Jackson does not quite have Michael Bennett’s explosive lateral movement, but he’s in that neighborhood. He’s not quite Aaron Donald or Gerald McCoy in terms of initial get-off, but he’s capable of similar flashes. He doesn’t possess the raw strength of Geno Atkins or Ndamukong Suh, but he can win with a bull-rush. Simply put, the only gap-shooting defensive tackles who are better than the 26-year-old are the ones listed in this paragraph. (And maybe Carolina’s Kawann Short.)

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In my casual chats with offensive coaches around the NFL this year, Jackson’s name has come up several times, often unprovoked. When teams game-plan for the Broncos, they talk about stopping defensive tackle No. 97 almost as much as they do Miller and Ware. “We really need Malik in order to have the type of defense we have right now,” Von Miller said at the Broncos’ media session on Wednesday.

Not surprisingly, the Panthers have taken notice.

“He’s a good player,” Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said. “He’s a big guy. He’s physical. They’re all great pass rushers. I think the biggest thing, especially him, they do a good job getting off blocks.”

From left guard Andrew Norwell, who will be the one primarily responsible for combatting Jackson: “He’s fundamentally sound, he plays low. All around, he’s a good player.”

Jackson’s rise was not a fast one. He did not fully understand the scheme as a rookie, and his playing time reflected that. He was shocked that year at minicamp when he first encountered the playbook.

“They didn’t [initially] minimize it like they do in college, they just give you the whole thing,” he said. “I had a real moment like, I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.”

It wasn’t until Jackson got his first NFL sack—on Oct. 6, 2013, in a 51-48 shootout victory at Dallas—that he felt “like, wow, I can really play with the rest of these guys.”

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The 26-year-old understands his personal stakes this Sunday. Playing on a big stage with free agency on the horizon, he says, “It’s the one chance you have to go out there and do something big for your family and the rest of your life. So for me, I just embrace it, I embrace the challenges every week, I embrace the chance to go out there and show John Elway that I like it here.”

Teams outside of Denver who pursue Jackson will have to decide whether to pay him to be the focal point of their front four (which he’s never been) or to be an elite puzzle piece, as he is now.

“I can make myself a lot more money if I go out there [Sunday] and do what I know how to do and do what I’ve been doing,” Jackson said. “I can definitely boost myself up. But it’s all about just what I want to do and where I want to be. I love it here [in Denver], so hopefully we can work something out.”

• KAWANN SHORT’S RISE: Robert Mays on one half of the Panthers’ interior line force

Other Dark-Horse Broncos

T.J. Ward, strong safety

He’s arguably Denver’s most important defender for Super Bowl 50. For starters, Ward is the eighth man in the box against the run. That’s crucial against a mobile Cam Newton in Carolina’s multifaceted ground game. Ward is also the most likely defender to take Greg Olsen whenever the Pro Bowl tight end splits out wide. (The Panthers like to do this with Olsen on the weak side of three-receiver sets.) In those scenarios, Ward will play straight man coverage. When Olsen is attached to the formation in a traditional line of scrimmage tight end role, Ward will be a likely double-teamer over the top, with either linebacker Danny Trevathan or Brandon Marshall jamming Olsen underneath. (This is what the Broncos did against Rob Gronkowski two weeks ago.)

Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall, linebackers

Speaking of those ’backers, they’re key for containing Newton. The Panthers like to go with max seven-man pass protection, keeping a running back and second tight end in as blockers. The Broncos, though a little more zone-oriented in the last six weeks or so, are liable to play their staple man coverages against a Panthers receiving corps that’s not particularly potent. So when the tight end and running back stay in and block, what happens with the man-to-man defenders who are assigned to cover them? Generally this season, the Broncos have converted those men into blitzers. Sending them after the quarterback is more productive than having them just standing around and watching. That is, unless you’re facing a running threat like Newton. Instead of blitzing the league MVP, don’t be surprised if Denver’s freed-up defenders spy him when the Panthers employ heavy protections. This would tilt the pass coverage numbers significantly in Denver’s favor, forcing Newton to hold the ball. A quarterback holding the ball against DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller, Derek Wolfe and, yes, Malik Jackson? Perilous.

Sylvester Williams, nosetackle

It’s strange how Williams gets overlooked. He’s a third-year pro who has lived up to his first-round billing. It’s crucial that he gets off the ball Sunday and disrupts the interior pull-blockers that comprise Carolina’s misdirection rushing attack.

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