Chargers waiting for cornerback J.C. Jackson to find ‘comfort zone’

COSTA MESA — J.C. Jackson signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract with the Chargers in March, after four seasons with the New England Patriots, after his selection to the Pro Bowl in 2021, after his 25 interceptions since entering the NFL in 2018 led the league.

Has he played like an $82.5 million cornerback since joining the Chargers?

No.

Can he play like an $82.5 million cornerback with the Chargers?

Yes.

“I think that J.C. just needs to get into his comfort zone, play in his technique and play his game,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said earlier this week, several days after describing Jackson’s play during a 30-28 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday as “up and down.”

“We believe in him so much,” Staley said after Jackson gave up five catches for nearly 60 yards and one touchdown in coverage during Sunday’s game in Cleveland, according to statistics compiled by the website Pro Football Focus. “It’s our job as coaches to get him going.”

Jackson has been something of a mystery man since he abruptly underwent minor ankle surgery on Aug. 23. He sat out the Chargers’ season-opening victory over the Las Vegas Raiders on Sept. 11, then played every down during their loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sept. 15.

He then sat out the Chargers’ loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sept. 25 before returning to the lineup for each of their next two games – victories over the Houston Texans on Oct. 2 and over the Browns this past Sunday. He has 13 total tackles, including 10 solo tackles, but zero interceptions in three games.

Last season, Jackson had a career-high 58 tackles (44 solo), plus eight interceptions while playing with the Patriots. In 2020, he had 40 tackles (34 solo) and a career-best nine interceptions. He also had five interceptions in 2019 and three as a rookie in 2018.

No one in his first four seasons in NFL history has had more interceptions than Jackson, 26.

“Mentally, I feel like he’s still getting better,” said safety Derwin James Jr., who leads the Chargers with 45 total tackles, including seven for losses. “Each week, I feel like he’s growing and he’s going to keep improving and then eventually he’s going to play like we know he can play. No one is turning away from him. We all know what type of player J.C. is. He’ll continue to get better every day.”

Ankle injuries can be difficult for any athlete in any sport, and defensive backs are no exception, according to James. Shadowing opposing wide receivers and not knowing where they’re going makes the simple act of running after them a stressful and, frequently, an unsuccessful physical activity.

“It’s tough because you’re constantly stopping and planting on that thing,” James said. “Feet and hips are the two main things. When you’re constantly playing, you can’t push off how you want to. I’m pretty sure it’s a different adjustment for him. I’m sure he’s working through it. He’s not a guy to make excuses.”

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Jackson wasn’t available for comment earlier this week, including after Sunday’s game against the Browns.

Staley, however, was blunt in his assessment of Jackson’s play Sunday. Pressed on Wednesday for the reasons why Jackson hasn’t lived up to expectations, Staley preached patience. Staley said there’s always an adjustment for any player joining a new team via free agency or a trade.

There’s also the question of Jackson’s extended layoff after his surgery.

“I think that four weeks being out, that’s a factor, obviously, but it’s our job as coaches and the players around him to get him back just playing his game,” Staley said. “When he’s playing his game, as you guys have seen throughout training camp, and in a lot of stretches this year, he’s the right guy to be coaching. We’re excited to keep coaching him. Looking forward to seeing the best of him, for sure.”