Chiefs defensive end Tyson Jackson almost forgot how much fun he could have playing football.
Instead of his usual trip to the sidelines when the Chiefs went to their nickel defense against Denver last week, Jackson teamed with rookie tackle Dontari Poe as the two interior linemen on passing downs.
And Jackson responded with one the most productive games of what has been considered a disappointing career since he was taken with the third overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft.
Jackson collected three tackles, including a takedown of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning was credited with a 1-yard rush, so statistically it was not ruled a sack.
“They didn’t call it a sack,” Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said, “but really he got a sack. Tyson has been good all year. He is a guy who works very hard. He’s conscientious. It’s important to him. He showed up (on Sunday).”
Crennel said he decided to utilize Jackson instead of Allen Bailey on passing downs because teams started running the ball successfully against the Chiefs’ nickel defense.
Consequently, Jackson participated in a season-high 55 snaps — or 86 percent of the Chiefs’ defensive plays against Denver. In fact, Jackson has seen his most action of the season in the last two weeks after participating in 48 snaps (68 percent) against Cincinnati. Twice this year, he had been on the field for fewer than 50 percent of the Chiefs’ plays.
“It’s awesome, getting sacks and getting quarterback pressures,” said Jackson, who picked up his first sack of the season (and just third of his career) against Cincinnati. “It’s definitely a different feeling than just holding those offensive linemen up so our linebackers can make plays.
“But to be quite honest, I’m a team player. Whatever I can to help our team out, I’m all for it.”
In the base 3-4 front, Jackson’s primary responsibility is to do the dirty work and occupy blockers so inside linebackers are free to make the tackles. But as down lineman in the nickel, Jackson is free to go after the passer, even if he doesn’t get the sack.
Jackson’s pressure up the middle, when he mauled Denver center Dan Koppen, kept Manning from stepping up in the pocket and allowed Justin Houston to pick up a sack last week.
“I understood my role in the defense,” Jackson said. “They had guys on the team who could affect the quarterback better than I could at particular times on third down. I know for sure I was a first-and-second-down-type of guy who could go out there and stop the run. I’m trying to embrace whatever the coaches throw my way right now to help our defense get some three-and-outs and some stops to get our offense the ball.
“The sacks are nice, but I’d trade those to get a win.”
This week, the Chiefs will face a different style of quarterback in Carolina’s Cam Newton.
One week after facing a pure pocket passer in Manning, the Chiefs will have to contend with the scrambling skills of Newton, who leads the Panthers in rushing and last year became the first player in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for at least 500 yards in a season.
“We have to understand we’re playing a guy who can scramble, so we can’t just pin our ears back and rush upfield, get behind the quarterback and give him opportunities to step up and make plays,” Jackson said. “We have to be real disciplined across the board, especially the front three. We have to continue to push the pocket, so our rushers like Justin and Tamba (Hali) can get around the corner and knock down passes and affect the quarterback.”
Carolina coach Ron Rivera has noticed how much more active Jackson has been the last two weeks.
“I see a guy who is obviously a little more experienced,” Rivera said. “I see a guy when you watch him play who is physical at the point of attack. He’s a physical phenom in terms of what his measurables are. You watch him play, and you watch him get close to making plays. It’s hard. This game is not simple. I think it’s a matter of time, that you see guys like that who continue to work hard and do things the right way, they will get better.”
Any improvement in Jackson’s play may not benefit the Chiefs much longer. The Chiefs restructured his contract during the offseason, and his base salary for 2013 would be $14.72 million, with $3.22 guaranteed. So unless the two sides work out another new deal, Jackson may not be in Kansas City next year.
“I’ll leave that up to the front office and my agent and let them take care of the business-part of the deal,” said Jackson, 26. “I would love to be back. I really love the Chiefs, I love the organization, I love the fans.
“This year has been a rough year, but we still have a few games to go, get some wins under our belt and finish our season on a bright note.”