WASHINGTON - For nine games, outside linebacker Rob Jackson waited patiently, trying to make the most of whatever opportunities coaches gave him. But eventually, he had to say something. Three games and a number of big plays later, he and the Washington Redskins are glad he did.
When top pass-rusher Brian Orakpo tore a pectoral muscle in Week 2 and was lost for the season, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett tabbed Jackson as Orakpo's replacement.
But Haslett and his assistants weren't sold on Jackson as a full-time player. They used him on first and second downs because of his abilities against the run, but they would pull him in favor of other players - often Chris Wilson and Lorenzo Alexander - on third downs, deeming them more effective against the pass.
But in Week 13, with the Redskins down 13-10 at halftime to the New York Giants, Jackson challenged Haslett to give him more opportunities as a pass-rusher. Haslett consented, and Jackson came up with a crucial late-game sack on Eli Manning, helping Washington to a 17-16 victory.
That play helped earn more third-down opportunities for Jackson. He picked up a sack in each of the next two games. Additionally, Jackson has forced turnovers in each of the past two games, recording a sack-fumble against Baltimore and an interception against Cleveland.
Jackson became the first Redskins player this season with sacks in three consecutive games. More importantly, he has provided plays in critical moments. His teammates declared the interception against Cleveland, which came two plays into the second half and positioned Washington to take a lead it never relinquished, the biggest defensive stop of the game.
"With Rob, he's grown a lot with reps. The more experience he's gotten, he's gotten better - more comfortable with what he's doing," inside linebacker and team captain London Fletcher said. "He's able to kind of play with defensive linemen, play games with the quarterback. As far as whether he's blitzing or whether he's in coverage, things like that, he's going to take advantage of the opportunity that he's been given."
Jackson's play the past three weeks represents a maturation of a player that has tread an obstacle-littered path in the NFL. Drafted by Washington in the seventh round of the 2008 draft out of Kansas State, he originally was a defensive end.
He appeared in three games as a rookie, and then split time between the practice squad and 53-man roster the following year.
In 2010, Jackson had to make the switch from end to outside linebacker as Coach Mike Shanahan took over and installed the 3-4 defense. The 6-foot-4, 266-pound Jackson fared well against the run because of his size, strength and physicality. But learning to rush the passer from a two-point stance rather than three-point stance, as well as dropping back to cover tight ends on pass routes, required more development.
"It was real hard, but I just looked at it as, at the end of the day, I still had a job, and I'm still in the NFL," Jackson recalled. "In that time period, I saw so many guys come in and out no matter what round they were drafted in. So at the end of the day, I was still just thankful to be in the NFL. Whether I got the opportunity or not, I was still working."
Jackson returned to Washington's practice squad that year, and then late in the season received another promotion. With Orakpo nursing a groin injury in Week 16, Jackson took his place and recorded his first career sack. Then in the final game of the 2011 season, in another relief appearance, Jackson sacked Michael Vick.
Jackson entered this season in the final year of his contract, hoping to earn more of a regular role. At times during training camp, Haslett called plays that included Orakpo, left outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and Jackson on the field at the same time. Then, Jackson received his biggest opportunity of his career with Orakpo lost in Week 2.
Jackson and the other members of Washington's front seven did well against the run all year. But they struggled in defending the pass. Pass coverage was a challenge for a patch-work secondary, and an inconsistent pass rush was part of the problem.
"He's progressively gotten better in all phases," Haslett said. "We've always thought he was a pretty good player against the run. He's had to work on it because he was a defensive end all his life in college."
Jackson is second on the team with 4.5 sacks (behind Kerrigan's 6.5), and also has three interceptions and two forced fumbles. Jackson scored a touchdown on one interception (against Carolina), and Washington's offense has scored points off the other four turnovers he has forced.
"Who knows when the next time is that this opportunity will come around, so you try to capitalize," Jackson said. "I wasn't filling no small shoes. Orakpo's a two-time Pro-Bowler. So, I knew I couldn't be mediocre. I had to make plays and stand out."