ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Matthew Slater was the latest player to share the same sentiment many of his teammates have relative to J.C. Jackson.
“I still don’t know how he went undrafted,” Slater said Sunday.
It was a grateful Slater speaking, in part because Jackson’s blocked punt in the first quarter had created the opportunity for the veteran’s first career touchdown. That game ball was sitting in Slater’s bag as he got ready to leave Buffalo in part thanks to the second-year cornerback who had a massive game Sunday with the blocked punt and two interceptions.
“That’s my first time doing that,” Jackson said.
The blocked punt was the result of savvy scouting and timely play-calling, plus Jackson’s execution. The Bills were backed up to their 33-yard line and Jackson was lined up on the outside as a vice corner, which would normally make his primary responsibility to handle the gunner on his side.
But the Bills had their gunners positioned in a way that the Patriots felt would give Jackson an opportunity to rush and get to the punter, Corey Bojorquez. They were somewhat surprised, too, that the Bills didn’t adjust their protection when they saw how the Patriots were lining up.
“We were working on it in practice [this week] and coach called it and I executed the right way,” Jackson said.
Jackson got to Bojorquez and got a mitt on the punt, which landed in a position for Slater to scoop it and score.
“It was a great call by [special teams coaches] Joe [Judge] and Cam [Achord],” coach Bill Belichick said. “We talked about it before the game. We had good field position, they were backed up and they didn’t bring the gunners back in so we just brought him off the edge. I think they started bringing the gunners back in after that.”
Bills coach Sean McDermott said he didn’t want to get into the specifics of what went wrong with Buffalo’s protection on the play since they’ll play the Patriots again.
As unusual as the play was, it was clearly premeditated, something the Patriots felt they could accomplish if the right situation came up, which it did.
“Man, that was something that we felt good about,” Slater said. “J.C. did a great job of timing it up. I can’t ever remember a vice corner blocking a punt since I’ve been here. So, great job of timing it up and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Jackson’s other big plays Sunday, though, were not as much about scouting and scheming as they were pure execution. His two picks both came on plays where he undercut deep throws by Bills quarterback Josh Allen to receiver Zay Jones.
The first was near the end of the first quarter, when Allen targeted Jones deep down by the right pylon. He threw up a floater that looked as if it could have been punted.
His second pick came with 4:06 left in the third quarter, again after Allen, running to his right, threw a pass intended for Jones. Jackson swept in down the right sideline, leaped high, snagged the ball and came down with it.
“The receiver, he ran a go route. Then Josh Allen got out of the pocket and started scrambling, then the receiver tried to come back to the ball and I guess I just competed and got the ball before he did,” Jackson said, explaining the play from his perspective.
McDermott said those plays by Allen were mistakes, not just unlucky plays, and that the young quarterback wasn’t taking what the Patriots defense was giving him.
They were definitely balls that could be intercepted.
Even Tom Brady, though, who’s relatively skilled at not throwing those kinds of passes, said Jackson plays on the scout team in practice enough for him to know that the margin for error is slim against him.
“Very, very skilled,” Brady said. “And he’s obviously got great ball skills, as well.”
Safety Devin McCourty said there should be some kind of hybrid award Jackson could win for having a great week on defense and on special teams. One possibility: Perhaps McCourty and his fellow defenders could take a week off from calling Jackson by his given first name, Jerald, which drives young J.C. absolutely bananas.
That feels unlikely, though, so Jackson can settle for a game ball and a big day impacting the score in a close game.