Malcolm Butler’s rookie year with the Patriots ended unforgettably, but at this point in that season, he wasn’t really on anyone’s radar.
That underscores how unusual it is to see an undrafted rookie cornerback playing significant snaps for the Patriots and being trusted with big matchups, which is what J.C. Jackson is doing.
Through the first 15 weeks of the 2014 season, Butler played in nine games and saw 14.3 percent of the defensive snaps. He had zero interceptions and one pass breakup.
Through the first 15 weeks of the 2018 season, Jackson has played in 11 games and seen 30.1 percent of the defensive snaps overall.
He’s played at least 70 percent of the defensive snaps in each of the Patriots last three games. He has two interceptions and two pass breakups, including an excellent play on a deep ball Ben Roethlisberger threw to JuJu Smith-Schuster in the fourth quarter Sunday. Jackson shadowed Smith-Schuster, who has 1,274 receiving yards this season, and held him to four catches on 10 targets for 40 yards. The undrafted rookie rose to what was a big challenge in a high-profile moment.
“I think there’s a comfort level of him understanding what we’re asking him to do and then doing that at a better level,” Patriots cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer said Tuesday. “So, I think over time, there’s been a steady improvement of that, so I would say those would be the key factors there.”
Butler was behind Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington, and Logan Ryan as a rookie, so he had a steeper hill to climb to get significant playing time than Jackson has this year. Stephon Gilmore’s was the only name written in Sharpie as a starter at the beginning of the season, though Jason McCourty quickly made his own case. Jackson basically just had to jump ahead of Jonathan Jones to get to where he is now, though it appears he’s also held second-round draft pick Duke Dawson at bay since Dawson’s return from IR.
“It wasn’t like it all happened in one day or one week,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday. “He’s just played a little better each time he goes out on the field, takes advantage of his opportunities, and just continues to get a little bit better. He’s had some opportunities to play in games and has taken advantage of some of those opportunities with playing in third down or some substitute defensive situations, and that grew a little bit.”
Despite last year’s issues and his struggles in Tennessee, Butler was a find. Jackson appears to be another one, and he’s done more this season than Butler had up to this point in his rookie year.
One thing that’s different: If Jackson winds up making a big play in the playoffs, a few more people will probably already know who he is.
McDaniels on loss
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said he felt responsible for the Patriots’ failure to score a touchdown on what would have been a game-tying drive in the final minutes of Sunday’s loss to the Steelers.
“You can put that right on me,” McDaniels said. “Obviously, I didn’t do well enough at the very completion of the drive. I thought we were doing really well moving the ball. We got it into the scoring zone quick enough that we didn’t have to do anything dramatic, and I think we made it to the 10- or 11-yard line.”
McDaniels said that taking a penalty on second and 5 (holding on right guard Shaq Mason) proved particularly costly, but that the offense should have been able to pull off the score, having driven 64 yards in six plays to get to the 11-yard line. The final three plays McDaniels called were all similar, with four receivers running vertical routes. Tom Brady threw incomplete to the end zone each time.
On the decision to sub out Josh Gordon for Cordarrelle Patterson on the final fourth down, McDaniels said that both players have practiced for that type of situation.
“Based on what we were doing, we made the choice to go with C.P. at that point — no ulterior motive on that at all,” McDaniels said. “Just put a fresh guy in to go in there and do something on the last play to see if we could get into the end zone, and it is what it is.”
Asked if James White, who appeared open underneath the coverage on the offense’s final third-down play Sunday, was an option for Brady or if the quarterback needed to go deeper downfield given the time remaining, Belichick said he “would certainly not second-guess [Brady’s] judgment . . . Given the game situation and the time and all of the things that went into that play, he made the best decision that he thought he could make at that time, and I’m not going to second-guess it. You can second-guess it if you want to, but nobody knows better at that time, with the ball in his hands, where he feels like he’s got the best chance.” . . . Belichick said he believes the Patriots have gotten better since October, when the team went 4-0 with an average margin of victory of 10.75 points. “We’re playing against other teams that are improving, too.” . . . The Jets signed tackle Eric Smith to their active roster off the Patriots practice squad, meaning the Patriots will be looking for a replacement. “[B]est of luck to you all, see you on the other side,” Smith posted on Twitter, referencing the fact that he’s staying in the division . . . Brady and Gilmore were named to the Pro Bowl. The Chargers placed seven players, led by Philip Rivers.