Jackson Blocks Into Action

Brandon Jackson, the former second-round pick who has failed to become the Packers' featured running back, has gone from liability to asset because of his vastly improved work as a pass blocker. Edgar Bennett explains how Jackson has become a key contributor.

Every year during training camp, the linebackers and running backs get together for one high-intensity, shoulder-pad crunching, hell-raising period.

It's the blitz period. One-on-one. No linemen in the way. Just a linebacker running a million miles an hour, with a running back hoping that his strength and fundamentals and guts are good enough to prevent being the equivalent of a moth splattered against a windshield.

There was one running back the linebackers relished going against, at least according to one linebacker.

It was Brandon Jackson, the 2007 second-round pick, a player who was good with the ball in his hands but not exactly the most physical player on the field.

Funny how things change, and for the safety and well-being of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, it's a good thing those things have changed.

When designated and dependable blitz-pickup-back DeShawn Wynn went down with a season-ending knee injury, the Packers' prodigious pass-protection problems seemed ready to go from bad to worse. Instead, Jackson has been sturdy and steady.

It's all about attitude. Against Dallas, he de-cleated Anthony Spencer and won a handful of matchups against Keith Brooking. Against San Francisco, stud inside linebacker Patrick Willis got nowhere against Jackson. He had no problems with the Lions' blitzes, either.

"You watch the tapes, he's delivered a couple literal knockout blows on those chips," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said on Friday.

"He had a few situations where he was one-on-one with Patrick Willis. Does it get any better than that guy? He's one of the best in the business," running backs coach Edgar Bennett said. "You know what? Pass protection with Brandon, it's attitude. That's Football 101. It starts with your attitude and it's about winning your one-on-one battles. But everything we talk about, as far as how to get to that point, it's preparation, it's having extremely solid fundamentals. That's the starting point."

When Jackson was drafted, the hope was that he'd develop into an every-down running back, a player capable of rushing for 1,000 yards and catching 50 passes, but that hasn't gotten close to happening. With Ryan Grant proving to be reliable and durable if not dynamic — earning a lucrative long-term extension in the process — Jackson has had to fight for playing time. That fight ultimately has forced Jackson to learn how to do the kinds of things that don't show up on the stats but are vital nonetheless.

RB Brandon Jackson
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
"It's about attitude," Jackson said. "There's times when you've got to get nasty in there to pick a big guy up. Sometimes, they weigh 20, 30 pounds more that you. It's an attitude. I come with my hat on every day, just looking to pick blitzes up."

Picking up blitzes takes toughness and technique, but it also takes time in the film room. Running the football and catching passes out of the backfield is easy. It's pure instinct most of the time. Picking up blitzes, however, requires preparation. In this look, is the middle linebacker coming? Are two guys coming off the edge? What about the corner who is taking a step toward the line of scrimmage?

That was evident during the 49ers game. In the first quarter, Rodgers hit a streaking Greg Jennings for 37 yards down the left sideline. While Rodgers got credit for a perfect pass and Jennings got credit for a perfect route, it was Jackson diagnosing and easily snuffing a corner blitz that allowed the play to happen.

"One part of it is studying his opponent, knowing how they're going to attack our offense," Bennett said. "Another part is understanding each individual guy that they've shown will pressure. What techniques are they using? He's becoming more of a student of the game. He's studying his tape. He gets here and he leaves late, and he takes his DVD home. He's doing the little things, and I think it's creating a tremendous amount of confidence in him."

Jackson, however, wouldn't be in this position without injuries. First, it was Wynn's knee injury, which precipitated the signing of Ahman Green. Green missed the last couple games with a groin injury, and Jackson has been superb as the third-down back.

Against San Francisco, Jackson's late 8-yard run set up a third-and-1 sneak by Rodgers for a first down that allowed the Packers to run out the clock. He finished that game with 81 yards of total offense, including six receptions for 65 yards to add another dimension to a well-stocked offensive arsenal.

"It's just more competition," Jackson said of what he thought when Green was signed. "It's a great chance to compete against a veteran guy. Basically, I love competition and I'm not going to shy away."

Green has recovered from the groin injury, but Jackson probably has played well enough to be the third-down guy against Baltimore. Given the Ravens' suspect secondary and the likely absence of top pass rusher Terrell Suggs, picking up blitzes — most often by the legendary Ray Lewis — will be a key element in Monday's game.

"I think Brandon is doing a lot of positive things," coach Mike McCarthy said on Friday. "I think his special teams play has picked up. He's always been very consistent on third down, particularly in pass protection for us. He's doing a good job on the checkdowns and some of the screens, and he's had a number of big third-down conversions and has done a good job in the four-minute offense. So I'm pleased with the way Brandon has been playing."

Said Jackson: "The coaches, they trust me, and that's a good thing when you've got trust in your teammates. That's something that you take pride in."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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