Charger's Justin Jackson: A Mostly Positive Review of His Rookie Season
There's no end in sight to the stalemate between the Charger's front office and Melvin Gordon. So, it is likely that Justin Jackson will be called upon to take an expanded role in this offense in 2019. With that being the case, I felt it was worthwhile to take a close look at Jackson's rookie season to see what more carries from him might look like. Spoiler alert: it's mostly good.
I watched every Jackson carry from last year and a few things jumped out. I paid special attention to the game against the Chiefs where he was featured - receiving 16 carries (more than twice as much as he had in any other single game last year). This is the game that should be most reflective of what we will see this season. Let's start with the positive themes I saw.
For each run, I made a point to use the power of hindsight to determine if Jackson picked the right hole. He did more often than not.
Vision, in my opinion, is the the most important trait a running back can possess. The lack of it is often the reason physically superior college prospects, like Trent Richardson, flop in the NFL, and otherwise unathletic backs thrive.
I would encourage you to rewind some film from last year and watch Jackson go. Here is an example from the Chief's game where he displays great vision in the hole - making the perfect cut before running for a solid gain.
Now, this was a designed counter, but Jackson's vision allowed him to exhibit patience - allowing the play to progress, rather than bailing when a defender broke through. I wish he would trust his vision more often (more on that later), but he no doubt has a great feel for where he needs to go.
My only complaint on this run, if I'm being nitpicky, is that he probably made one cut too many. I'd rather him keep it going upfield and take on the safety. He'd win that battle and would have picked up a few more yards with his tough running style. Which leads me to his next strength.
This trait showed up more than any other for me. Jackson always seems to fall forward. I saw several runs, which should have been stopped at the line of scrimmage, that he managed to fight forward for two or three yards. Those yards matter - especially on early downs.
Here is, perhaps, the crown jewel in Justin Jackson's crown from last year. It was my favorite run of his, and the one that got me the most excited about his expanded role this season.
This is the type of run that will cause fans to fall in love with him. Sorensen, with the help of others, stops Jackson's momentum, but he still manages to keep the legs moving and picks up extra yardage. This shows up to varying degrees all the time with Jackson.
Jackson's vision and finishing are the two traits that popped for me. He doe's other things well too, but those are the two worth talking about.
Now, on to the one thing I feel Jackson needs to improve upon most this season.
I mentioned that vision is strength for Jackson, and it definitely is, but sometimes he doesn't seem to trust what he sees. It causes him to be tentative hitting the hole. He picks the right hole, but sometimes it's a little too late because he doesn't explode through it. Here's another example from the game against the Chiefs.
This run isn't the flashiest example, because it's not like Jackson left 20 yards on the field, but it's a good example of what I saw several times with him. This play is designed to open a hole right behind Dan Feeney (#66). Feeney does a really nice job sealing off the defensive tackle and getting to the second level. Jackson should be following Watt right into the hole, but Jackson stops and cuts twice before hitting it. Those cuts don't really do anything for him. They're just wasted movement that slow him down. Watt didn't do a great job of finishing his block. So, like I said, this run wouldn't have gone for 20 yards had Jackson been more decisive, but the next one could.
Here's another example of the same type of thing.
On this play, Jackson is running with his center, Mike Pouncey, leading the way. Pouncey is one-on-one with Orlando Scandrick, but instead of continuing to follow him to the edge, Jackson hesitates and cuts back into the teeth of the defense.
This should have been an easy five extra yards for Jackson, but he took about four steps behind Pouncey that didn't get him anywhere. That slowed him down just enough for the defense to catch up. He needs to trust his block here and explode around the edge.
The good news is that the indecisiveness is likely a result of a lack of confidence and that should improve with time. Jackson also now has the benefit of working with the first-team offensive line throughout training camp. So, he should be more comfortable running behind them in 2019. I'm sure this is also something Anthony Lynn, a former running back, has been in his ear about.
After watching more of Jackson, it's easy to see why the Chargers feel comfortable going into the season without Melvin Gordon. Jackson is not as talented as Gordon, but considering the cost-savings, he's a fantastic alternative.