FOXBOROUGH — A 26-year old running back would love to have Fred Jackson’s numbers. The Bills running back has 201 yards rushing, averaging 4.8 yards per carry (a mark that includes a poor 12-carries-for-24-yards performance against Miami in Week 2), and is Buffalo’s leading receiver, with 26 catches for 228 yards and a touchdown.
But Jackson is 33, the oldest back in the NFL. And clearly, he isn’t playing a bit role — he is still a major part of the offense at an age when most ball carriers are supposed to have fallen off the proverbial cliff.
“Fred Jackson is a phenomenal football player,” normally taciturn Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “I think age has nothing to do with his ability right now. He is running the ball extremely hard, very powerful. He’s still very explosive through the line of scrimmage.
“He’s also a big threat and a great target for their offense in the passing game. They do a good job of getting the ball out to the running backs and on the screen game. Fred Jackson does an excellent job of creating those yards after the catch and just creating a lot of offense from both the backfield alignments and then when he gets out in space in the passing game. He is a very, very good football player.
“He’s a very difficult player to defend and then the combination of Fred Jackson and [C.J.] Spiller together, it’s quite a tandem of players.”
Jackson and Spiller are both dual threats, able to create yards with a handoff or a catch. Spiller was a first-round pick five years ago, but the two have basically split carries the last two seasons, though Spiller topped 1,200 yards in 2012.
Unlike Spiller, Jackson entered the league the hard way. After his career at Division 3 Coe College in Iowa, he tried out for several teams but didn’t latch on. He played for two indoor teams before getting a chance to play for NFL Europe’s Rhein Fire in 2006.
His performance caught the attention of Bills general manager Marv Levy, who also had attended Coe, and Jackson got his NFL chance at 25.
He was a backup his first couple of seasons in Buffalo, but he’s always been effective, with a career average of 4.5 yards per carry and can be counted on for at least 30 catches a season.
“He’s the real deal. I remember when he was a backup, we used to talk all the time about how hard he runs and what a good back he is,” Vince Wilfork said. “He finally got his chance and he’s making every bit of it count. He’s a tough back.”
Studying film of Jackson isn’t part of Stevan Ridley’s preparation, but he’s taken the time to watch him on the field.
“He’s a beast. He really is a beast,” Ridley said. “I really didn’t know too much about Fred Jackson until I got in the league four years ago, but the four years that I’ve been here, he’s been a strong runner.
“That’s somebody [coach Bill Belichick] always highlights on the film when we play Buffalo, that this is somebody we’re going to have to stop. Their backfield is electric — with Spiller, with [Boobie] Dixon, and with Fred Jackson — there’s some talented guys in that backfield. At , to see he’s doing what he’s doing, my hat’s off to him. Hopefully I can have a career like him and still be running the ball like he is at 30 years old. But he’s doing it well and he’s doing his job, and that’s what you have to do if you want to be a true professional.”
The Patriots’ defense did a good job containing talented Bengals back Giovani Bernard last week, and they’ll have to do the same this week because the Bills want to run.
“They have a very, very explosive offense with the backs and receivers and [tight end Scott] Chandler in the passing game,” Wilfork said. “I mean, pick your poison. We have to do a real good job of making sure we handle a lot of things on the run. They can line up and run the ball, they can line up and play-action pass. Nothing better for an offense than when they can run the ball and play-action pass off that, and you have three receivers, four receivers, and some backs you have to defend.