Getting Jackson the ball is key to Eagles' success
PHILADELPHIA – DeSean Jackson can score anytime he touches the ball from anywhere on the field.
The problem for the Philadelphia Eagles is they don't have much success when opponents shut Jackson down. The Eagles were 10-4 in games Jackson played this season. The Pro Bowl wide receiver had just 11 catches for 107 yards and no touchdowns in the four losses.
Guess who the Green Bay Packers (10-6) will focus on stopping when they play Philadelphia (10-6) in an NFC wild-card game on Sunday?
Yes, the Packers have to contain Michael Vick. But he's the quarterback and there's no way to keep the ball out of his hands. So, they'll try to take away Vick's main target instead.
"He's a gamebreaker," Packers cornerback Charles Woodson said of Jackson. "He's done it his whole career, and he can do it from anywhere on the field. He's a guy that, if he gets his hands on the ball, he can get it to the end zone from anywhere. He has that type of speed. So, he'll be a tough challenge for us."
Jackson finished the season with 47 catches for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. He led the NFL with an average of 22.5 yards per reception. In Philadelphia's 10 wins, Jackson averaged 3.6 catches and 94.9 yards.
Vick is quite aware that getting the ball to Jackson is crucial. He's thrown deep passes to Jackson on the game's opening play a couple times and connected for big plays. Jackson had an 88-yard scoring catch against Washington on Nov. 15, and a 60-yard reception against Dallas on Dec. 12.
"When he's involved in the game, our chances go up of scoring more points and moving the ball down the field, so you've got to get the ball into his hands," Vick said. "If the defense does a good job of taking him away, then we've got to find other ways to get it done."
There were times Vick and Jackson just missed. Sometimes a wide-open Jackson ends up waving his arms for the ball, but Vick doesn't have time to throw or simply misfires. Sometimes Jackson cuts a route short or doesn't make an adjustment and Vick has to set the young receiver straight.
"They all always feel like they're open," Vick said of wide receivers. "They all want the ball. They work hard. Watching practice, it's like they're on the track team. You want to reward those guys.
"It's tough. One thing you can't do in this league is force the ball to anybody. You'll have balls all over the place, you'll have incomplete passes, you'll have interceptions obviously, so you've just got to play within the system and let the coaches put the plays together that get him the ball. And that's what we do a good job of here."
Jackson — generously listed at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds — is one of the smaller players in the league. He's sustained two concussions in the past two seasons, and it's not uncommon to see him shy away from hits or the middle of the field.
In a 31-26 loss at Chicago on Nov. 28, Jackson short-armed a pass in traffic on what should've been a touchdown. It ended up being a costly non-catch. Jackson got an earful from coach Andy Reid after the game, and sat quietly at his locker for a while afterward.
Vick took charge, telling reporters he would make sure Jackson was in the right frame of mind and then giving him a pep talk. In Philadelphia's next game, Vick hit Jackson for a 30-yard gain on the first play.
"It's really not about me, man," Jackson said. "We've just got to play team ball. It can't be individual ball. Everybody has to play as a whole. We need all 11 guys out there playing together as one. As long as we can do that, as you could see in the past, it's really hard for us to be stopped. As long as everybody's on the same path to go out there and do what we want to do, I think we'll be all right."
Jackson is a dangerous punt returner, too. His 65-yard return on the final play capped an incredible comeback and lifted the Eagles to a 38-31 win over the New York Giants on Dec. 19.
"He's in a class all by himself," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said of his fellow Cal alum, "with the talent he's got."
Rodgers' top target is Greg Jennings, who had 76 catches for 1,265 yards and 12 scores. Veteran Donald Driver is still a reliable receiver, and James Jones had more catches (50) than Jackson. Jordy Nelson was close behind with 45. So, Green Bay has some weapons, too.
"We think we're a pretty dangerous team, as should they," Jennings said. "We know that they're a dangerous team. At the same time and in the same breath, that means nothing if you don't go out there and execute. If we're not able to execute, then we're killing ourselves. If we're doing the things that we need to do as far as our preparation, then we go out there with all wheels touching the ground and burning some rubber."
This will be a rematch of Green Bay's 27-20 victory at Philadelphia in Week 1. Both teams suffered key injuries in that game. The Packers lost running back Ryan Grant for the season. The Eagles lost center Jamaal Jackson and fullback Leonard Weaver for the year.
But the most noteworthy injury was the concussion to quarterback Kevin Kolb, who was injured on a hit by Clay Matthews. That opened the door for Vick.
He never looked back.
"It's exciting," Vick said. "Obviously, this is a very intense time, but this is what you play for. This is why you play so hard in the regular season and try to accumulate as many wins as you can, so you can play in the postseason."