Redskins WR DeSean Jackson's speed scares defenses, helps teammates

DeSean Jackson, who missed the preseason and six games due to different injuries, is quickly making up for lost time. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

ASHBURN, Va. -- Sometimes it’s easy to see the impact: Washington Redskins receiver DeSean Jackson sprinting past the safety, briefly fooled by a play fake. That’s when Jackson’s at his best, which is exactly what he was against the New York Giants last week. He punctuated the play with a 62-yard touchdown.

Other times it’s more subtle: Jackson again sprinting down field, only this time drawing the attention of two defenders and creating an opening in an area he vacated -- one that the Redskins turned into a 26-yard gain for tight end Jordan Reed. You can credit play design for this particular route -- the right call vs. the right coverage. You can also credit Jackson for occupying two defenders, both of whom were afraid to leave him for a vacated area.

How much teams focus on Jackson is tough to gauge, but he is a constant headache for defenses: In the past three games, entering Monday’s contest vs. the Dallas Cowboys, Jackson has averaged 21.89 yards on nine catches.

“After he scored the first touchdown against the Giants, you can see their safeties backing up a little bit. But that's about it really,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “They're still going to play their man-to-man coverages. They might cheat the safety a little bit to him, might get some Cover 2 if it’s in the team's system that week. But defenses are going to play their defenses. [But] I’m sure they're aware.”

In the last two seasons, the Redskins averaged 5.58 yards per play overall but 6.25 with Jackson on the field; they averaged 7.15 yards per pass attempt overall and 7.93 with Jackson in the game; the passer rating was 89.9 overall and 95.2 with Jackson.

He’s not much of a blocker -- the Redskins often run away from his side, or if they run to him he’ll often run a route to clear out his man. And they want to get him more involved on routes other than deep balls -- crossers, screens, hitches.

“It should open up a lot of opportunities and catches in the intermediate game and in the quick game,” Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins said of the deep throws. “We want to not just make him a deep threat but enable him to be catching the football over all kinds of routes because if they have to defend all angles of his cuts, it’s going to be very tough to defend them.”

It’s been a long season in some ways for Jackson. He missed time in training camp with a shoulder injury, and didn't play in the preseason. He injured his hamstring in the season opener and missed the next six games. When he returned, he wasn’t yet at full speed.

“Any time you’re missing time in the NFL, that’s hard to make up,” Jackson said. “I’m doing the best I can week-by-week to improve and be where I need to be.”

Lately, that speed has increased as has his impact. In the last four games with Jackson, the Redskins have averaged 12.50 yards per reception. In the previous seven games without him, they averaged 9.4.

The plays against the Giants illustrate where he helps Washington. On his touchdown, the Redskins ran a play-action and quick-snapped the ball. With safety Brandon Meriweather flat-footed on the fake, Jackson’s speed took over.

“You definitely have to play him deep, which opens things up for everyone else,” said Redskins corner Will Blackmon, who has played with and against Jackson. “He’s been doing that for years.”

Later, on the play to Reed, the Giants were well aware that Jackson was running a deep route down the left seam. Both the corner and safety stuck with Jackson, leaving Reed free to run a deep cross.

“They feel him flying down and you see Meriweather getting out of there,” Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay said. “He runs the corner out of there.”

Earlier in the game, Jackson ran a deep route from the left slot against man coverage. But on that side of the field, perhaps because of his presence, the linebackers took a deeper drop, taking away downfield throws. But it led to an easy 12-yard checkdown pass to running back Alfred Morris on that same side. No one was within seven yards when he caught the ball.

“Everybody saw him run downfield so it cleared out everything,” Redskins running back Chris Thompson said.

The Redskins hope those plays continue and result in more big gains. They’ve had six pass plays for 40 yards or more this season; five have occurred with Jackson in the game (three have gone to him). It’s not that teams cheat his way all the time or that they double him constantly. And not every big play that occurs with him in the game is due to his presence. But he gives the Redskins someone who still scares teams deep. That matters.

“There are definitely a couple plays, based on some of those coverages, where he will dictate more attention and open up underneath things,” McVay said. “He’s a special player when he can do those things for us.”