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The Film Room: Kareem Jackson Tackles

Matt Weston takes a look at an underappreciated skill, Kareem Jackson’s ability to tackle.

Tennessee Titans v Houston Texan Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

We can’t be good at everything. There’s limitations etched into the Gs, Us, As, and Cs that are formed into proteins. No matter how many buttons in my shirt I unclasp, dead lifts I do while wearing Converses, punk rock shows I go to, long I grow my hair, I’ll never be cool. It’s just not me. No matter how many routes are covered, or how many schemes he’s put in, Kareem Jackson is never going to be a man on an island, locking down a team’s number one receiver. That isn’t him.

And that’s perfectly fine. K-Jax’s feet are a little sticky when receivers make their break. He will forever have trouble finding the ball. However, he is adequate. Kareem Jackson can cover tight ends and second wide receivers. He can play man and zone coverage. Most importantly, Kareem Jackson’s best skill is squashing plays by tackling ball carriers.

Since 2013, Kareem Jackson has been credited with 220 solo tackles. He’s missed just 21 during this time span, bringing his broken tackle rate to 9.5%. He’s had insane seasons where he missed just 3 of 48 tackles and 4 of 51 tackles. That’s such a far way from his rookie year, when he allowed 6.0 yards after the catch, which lead the league in 2010. As a rookie, Kareem Jackson was one of the worst defensive backs in the NFL.

Yet Kareem’s ability to tackle has allowed him to be a versatile cornerback in Houston’s defense. In coverage, he can give up a little bit more of a cushion. It allows him to read routes and break on the ball before ending catches immediately, which helps prevent him from getting burned down field. Jackson can cover tight ends. He can play soft zone coverage and smash quick routes. In the slot, he’s closer to the line of scrimmage and can have an impact on the run game. The Texans can do things like play him at safety, something they did in their postseason loss to the Patriots last year.

This third down tackle of Travis Kelce showcases Kareem Jackson’s versatility. He’s in zone coverage, tackling a tight end, and he’s not playing lockdown coverage. There’s space between him and Kelce. The receiver is open when he breaks out to the sideline. When the ball is released, Jackson is already downhill coming after Kelce. When Kelce has the ball in his hands and is trying to turn upfield, Jackson is already spreading his arms to wrap up.

Jackson is outweighed by 70 pounds here. He has to have leverage and technique to bring down behemoths, to not allow them to go through him onward to extra yards. Jackson gets his head across Kelce’s body. His shoulders are below his knees. He’s springing into the tackle to bring the boom it needs.

The explosion puts him all the way across Kelce’s body. It cuts him in half. His body becomes a tripping hazard Kelce flies over.

Kelce comes into Jackson’s body and flips over the top.

The pass is converted, but the third down isn’t.

By tackling like this, Jackson also saves his head and neck. In the past, tackling technique was a face mask into the chest, arms wrapped around the torso, and hips exploding up. Everyone who has played football spent summers leaping up and with their facemask. Lately in the NFL, and for the betterment of the league, players are using their shoulders as the hammer in the tackle. It’s a rugby style of tackling, a game where your unprotected face can’t be a weapon. Now tackles go shoulder to the hip, arms around the waist, head on the outside, arms wrapped around the waist. This change in tackling form allows for a somewhat safer game. It’s beneficial for players like Jackson who have to bring down monsters.

This is another third down stop against a tight end. This time it’s Rob Gronkowski, the best tight end in football and one of the most dominant ones of all time. Gronk catches a pass in the flat. It’s just him against Jackson. Kareem leaps at Gronk with his shoulder and his head on the outside. Rather than wrap this wildebeest around the waist, Jackson curls around his legs and drops him, making it look like Gronk took a hammer to the forehead in a movie suitable for this time of year.

Sometimes the tackler can go into full rugby mode and lift the leg. After the shoulder hits the torso and the arms are around the waist, the defender can lift a leg and dump-truck the ball carrier. Jackson uses this move as well. Here he scrapes the field with his upper body and flips Leonard Fournette by the leg to stop the run.

The key to this tackle, and most of Jackson’s tackles, is his pad level. He is low. His arms are spread out. He’s lower than his opponent. From this position, he explodes up into the ball carrier to take them out.

The other key is his head placement. Jackson always keeps his head outside. Most of the time, it leads to the usual tackles. Conveniently, the ball drops to the side of the abdomen as it swings in the arms of the ball carrier. By consistently placing the head in the right spot, the mundane becomes the dramatic and the spectacular. Sometimes simple tackles end up in turnovers.

The biggest play Kareem Jackson has made this season was the turnover he had on John Ross. Jackson is lined up as the slot corner on the right side of the formation. Ross comes from that same direction and runs behind the formation, taking the reverse. Jackson fights off the block from A.J. Green and gets across his body. When Jackson sees the ball carrier go, he goes. He runs from the other side of the field and gets in the vicinity of the man who almost won an island. Jackson leaps, head on the outside, and his head lands exactly on the ball. He pops it up into the hair and into the hands of that dreaded hellbeast, Jadeveon Clowney. That play led to three points, which proved monumental in Houston’s 13-9 win over Cincinnati.

The only problem with tackling to the outside of the body like this is that it makes it harder to go through the “skill player.” The ball carrier only has to go through half the defender instead of the entire defender. This is where the art of tackling that Jackson has mastered comes in. He can treat ball carriers like a fire pole. He’ll hit the waist with his shoulder and just slide down. The wrap-up ensures he can still bring down the offensive player.

These low wrap-ups also help out defenders when they get beat. If they can pinpoint the feet and yank to make tackles, they have a larger radius. Jackson can leap from farther positions, recover, and save plays from becoming disastrous gains.

This is a quick screen pass. Jackson is the designed unblocked defender and has to bring down Kelce on his own. He runs to the right to square Kelce up. The problem is the tight end cuts inside. Jackson has to quickly recover. He plants, runs back after Kelce, leaps for his left foot, misses, and ends up nicking the right one. It’s enough to prevent a ten yard gain from becoming twenty.

In the screen game, Jackson is a must-watch player. He has the quickness and patience to run past offensive lineman and dodge cut blocks. He has the upper body strength to extend receivers off his chest and separate himself from their blocks.

Here against Jacksonville, Jackson is in man coverage. His assignment runs a drag through the center of the field. By the time he recognizes the play, the guard is turning up the field. Jackson doesn’t try and engage the big fella. He uses his speed to his advantage and runs across his face. Kareem is also a strong man. Most cornerbacks ended up splattered when an offensive lineman gets their hands on them in the open field. Not Jackson. He fights off the block, runs away, and tackles Chris Ivory by snagging his foot like a Black Friday special.

On this screen against Cleveland, Jackson is the first defender in space. Most screens are blocked on a number system. When the blockers release, they take on players based on vicinity to the ball carrier. This allows the play to be malleable. That’s important for a play that flows and has players running all over the field. JC Tretter runs at Jackson, who steps right and leaps inside to dodge the block. In one motion, he plants off the foot he lands on and runs to the sideline to pursue the ball carrier. He overruns him slightly. As he’s falling across the defender, his sticks his arms up and is able to grab hold of a foot. With his upper body strength, that’s all K-Jax needs to make the tackle.

These same skills also apply in the running game. In the slot, Jackson is an extra defender in the box. Similar to nickel formations that place a safety at the linebacker position, it gives the defense versatility to cover while keeping an extra body in to stop the run. In this position, Kareem Jackson an absolute terror.

In this clip, Brandin Cooks is given the task of blocking Jackson in the slot. Jackson drops back briefly. He knows something is up. He keeps his eyes in the backfield. When he confirms it’s a run, he plants on his outside foot and runs inside of Cooks’ block. Afterwards, Jackson doesn’t square Mike Gillislee up. Instead, he keeps outside head placement from the beginning. He wants to force the back to the play. If he does miss the tackle, he can’t allow Gillislee to run forever. Of course it doesn’t matter. Gillislee cuts back inside and Jackson rips him down by the foot.

This is an outside zone play to the left. Brandon LaFell is in the slot with Jackson in front of him. The defensive back becomes a defensive lineman here. He punches LaFell in the chest and has his hands inside. Jackson sees Jeremy Hill plant and cut outside, so he extends and moves to the right to get outside of LaFell’s block. From there, he comes at a wide angle in pursuit of the back. He gets flat to the line for scrimmage and leaps across the ball carrier’s body to clean him out.

Jackson doesn’t have to be in the slot to affect the run game. He can do it on the outside boundaries of the field, and he can do it in a similar manner. In a 1x2x2 formation, Jackson is on his toes expecting the run. When he recognizes it, he cuts past the blocker’s face and runs past him into the box. There he dives at the ball carrier and cuts his legs off.

It’s football. It’s a collision sport. A lot of it just comes down to being a very bad man and obliterating the person in front of you. Like beet juice and dead lifts, it’s a lifestyle. Entering this season, Jackson hadn’t had a sack in his career. He picked up his first one against the Bengals, and he did it by being a very bad man.

Here he’s blitzing from the left slot. The Texans have a defender in every gap, and the Bengals are sliding one gap over to the right. The play breaks with Jackson having a free space to blitz through. At the snap, defenders on the left side break in pass coverage. Giovani Bernard recognizes this instantly and looks to the other side of the formation. He sees Jackson coming. As he comes across, he trips over the guard’s foot, causing him to fall forward. Jackson then does in the incredible. He lowers his shoulder in an attempt to come through the block. He feels nothing. Only air. Then he leaps over Bernard, up and into Andy Dalton, pulling him down as he steps up and into the pocket.

Jackson plays with a tenacity that exceeds the size of his frame. He’s taken Brian Cushing’s celebration from him and celebrates every bone-jarring shoulder toss with double bicep flexes. Kareem Jackson can bring down players 80 pounds heavier than him with shoulder-led collisions and foot wrap-ups. He can make up for the times he misses with foot snags. He can flick the hit stick against smaller players by throwing himself into their legs. Kareem Jackson is not a lockdown corner. But his tackling ability gives him a versatility that is only seen by other corners who use hands, feet, and arms, not their shoulders, to make plays.

Don’t toil in the negatives. Celebrate the positives. Kareem Jackson’s tackling ability is one of the best parts of Houston Texans football.