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What can William Jackson III bring to the Steelers defense?

The Steelers saw value in adding Jackson for the second half of the season.

Cincinnati Bengals v Washington Football Team Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 regular season is rolling on. During the bye week, the Steelers acquired cornerback William Jackson III from the Washington Commanders right before the NFL trade deadline. What is it about Jackson than made the Steelers take a chance on him for the rest on 2022? This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

After missing his entire rookie season of 2016 with a torn pectoral muscle suffered in training camp, William Jackson III came on strong in his first season of action. Appearing in 15 games with five starts, Jackson had one interception which was returned 75 yards for a touchdown, 14 passes defensed, a forced fumble, and his only career sack. His grade for the year according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) was 90.2 which had him the fifth-highest ranked cornerback in the NFL by PFF. Jackson had no touchdowns credited against him in 2017 according to PFF as Pro Football Reference (PFR) did not begin their advanced stats until 2018.

In Jackson’s second full year in 2018, he started every game for the Bengals and had 13 passes defensed but no interceptions. His PFF score was 73.4 for the season which dropped him to the 36th ranked cornerback regardless of the number of snaps played. While PFF had Jackson surrendering five touchdowns, PFR credited him with giving up seven touchdowns on the season.

In 2019, it was more of a down year for Jackson as in 13 starts he had one interception but only three passes defensed while giving up three touchdowns according to PFR. Jackson also had a 53.6 overall PFF score which had him ranked 166th among NFL cornerbacks. In 2020, Jackson’s last year in Cincinnati, he saw a little bit of a bounce back where in 14 starts he had an interception and 11 passes defensed while surrendering four touchdowns and had a PFF score of 71.4 which was ranked 29th in the NFL.

Signing a big contract in Washington for 2021, Jackson did not see improvement in his situation as in 12 starts he did have two interceptions but only eight passes defensed while surrendering six touchdowns. Jackson’s overall PFF score dropped to 59.3 in 2021 which had him once again outside the top 100 cornerbacks at 139th (not applying any minimum snap number). As for 2022, Jackson started off even worse before dealing with injury while appearing in four games with four starts and only two passes defensed compared to two touchdowns surrendered. Additionally, according to PFR, Jackson was credited with his highest completion percentage of his career as no other season did he give up a percentage of 60%. In 2022 Jackson gave up 17 completions on 24 targets for 190 yards and a 70.8% completion percentage. At the time of the trade, Jackson had an overall PFF score of 49.6 which has him ranked 154th among NFL cornerbacks when not looking at any type of snap requirements. When taking these requirements into accounts set forth by PFF, Jackson is ranked 96th of 113 cornerbacks.

So there are Jackson statistics on a year-by-year basis since entering the NFL. Obviously his time in Washington did not live up to the contract he signed, but his play in Cincinnati showed that Jackson has the potential to be a number one cornerback. But what does the tape say?

The Film Line:

William Jackson III missed his rookie season, but in 2017 he stepped into a major role and showed incredible potential, including having a great game against Antonio Brown in Week 13 of the 2017 season that put him on the NFL map as a potential future star.

2017 Steelers @ Bengals, 3rd quarter, 9:16

William Jackson III (#22) is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

You can see Antonio Brown get Jackson turned around on his release, but Jackson recovers to make a pretty crazy pass defense.

With just a few fingers on the ball, Jackson is able to dislodge the ball enough to take away a touchdown.

2017 Steelers @ Bengals, 3rd quarter, 9:16

William Jackson III (#22) is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

Defending a back-shoulder throw is not easy. Defending a Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown back shoulder throw in 2017? That’s a real challenge. Jackson handles Browns’ release, his physicality and is able to adjust to the throw and break it up. This is fantastic defense.

2017 Steelers @ Bengals, 4th quarter, 10:57

William Jackson III (#22) is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Jackson wasn’t just a cover guy though, he was a physical and willing tackler, on receivers and running backs.

He followed his 2017 breakout with quite possibly his best season in 2018 while playing for current Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.

2018 Steelers @ Bengals, 1st quarter, 11:07

William Jackson III (#22) is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

JuJu Smith-Schuster does a good job creating space in tight quarters on this route, but Jackson gets the win by reading Smith-Schuster’s hands and getting his long arms in the way. William Jackson III early in his career was a sticky man cover corner, who had good press technique. He never became the star many thought he would after his 2017 season, but he remained a very good starter, and in 2021 signed a contract with the Washington Commanders that made him a top ten cornerback in average salary at the time.

Jackson III didn’t have a lot of success with the Commanders, and his coaches have admitted he wasn’t a good fit for their zone-heavy scheme, but when you look at the film, he looks like he is still mostly the same player he was in Cincinnati.

2022 Commanders @ Cowboys, 1st quarter, 14:27

William Jackson III (#3) is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Jackson still excels in press man coverage, using his length and physicality to shut down routes, and he is still quick enough to break on the ball.

2022 Commanders @ Cowboys, 3rd quarter, 0:54

William Jackson III (#3) is the cornerback.

William Jackson III has had some injuries, but he still has high end speed and shows he can recover when beaten off a release and he still uses his reach well in breaking up passes. He also shows on this play how his aggressive, physical play causes him to make mistakes that lead to penalties. Here his hand going to the receiver’s facemask makes this an obvious pass interference call for the referee. This wasn’t a case where he had to commit a penalty to stop a big play, this is just his physicality leading to occasional penalties when he doesn’t execute cleanly.

2022 Commanders @ Cowboys, 3rd quarter, 14:27

William Jackson III (#3) is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

Jackson III is still a solid tackler and has no problem helping in the run game.

The Point:

Even if Jackson hasn’t lived up to the hype his first two seasons generated, he shows the same traits now that he did then, and likely gives the Steelers the closest thing they’ve had to an “Island” corner since Ike Taylor. William Jackson III is a quality starting cornerback who is familiar with the defense the Steelers use, and unlike the Commanders, the Steelers know the player they are getting, as Teryl Austin was his defensive coordinator in 2018.

The Steelers have done well with more limited starting corners in Teryl Austin’s scheme with Minkah Fitzpatrick backing them up. Steven Nelson and past-his-prime Joe Haden looked great in this defense, and I think William Jackson III can be at least that good in this defense when healthy.