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Jackson could be right man for the job

It's no secret the Steelers were interested in University of Houston cornerback William Jackson III during the run-up to the 2016 NFL Draft.

After all, both head coach Mike Tomlin and then-general manager Kevin Colbert both attended Jackson's pro day workout at Houston that spring.

But the Steelers didn't get the opportunity to select Jackson in that draft. The Cincinnati Bengals scooped him up with the 24th pick in the draft, one spot before the Steelers, who instead settled for cornerback Artie Burns.

Earlier this week, the Steelers righted that issue when they acquired Jackson from the Washington Commanders in a swap of late-round draft picks in 2025.

"(I'm) highly familiar with Will, not only from the AFC North, but just pre-draft; when he came out, he was a guy that we had a lot of interest in," Tomlin said this week after the acquisition. "We like his skillset, he's good on the line of scrimmage, he's got really top end speed, he's an experienced guy. He's experienced in the NFL and also experienced in the North.

"Obviously, he has to learn what to do, but we're excited about his inclusion and letting his participation and kind of how quickly he learns be our guide in terms of what his role might be, particularly in the short term."

What can the Steelers, who enter their bye week at 2-6, expect from Jackson, who turned 30 last week?

Well, that remains to be seen. But one thing for certain, he was miscast in his previous stop in Washington, which had signed him to a three-year contract prior to the 2021 season.

The 6-foot-0, 189-pound Jackson, is a physical press-man cornerback. But in Washington over the past two seasons, he's played zone 54.3 percent of the time this season and on 66.4 percent of his snaps in 2021.

For Jackson, that's akin to using a Porsche as a taxi cab.

Over the course of his career, Jackson has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 41.9 percent of their pass attempts into his coverage when he's playing man-to-man defense. When he's playing zone, that completion percentage increases to 64.1 percent.

Jackson had been dealing with a back issue in Washington, which was part of the reason he hadn't played since Week 5. But he also wasn't playing because the Commanders were trying to trade him.

"It was insignificant in terms of the transaction, so it's a nonfactor," Tomlin said.

At the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine, Jackson ran a 4.37-second 40-yard dash. Whether he still has that kind of top-end speed now at 30 remains to be seen.

"That never leaves. I've always been a fast guy all my life, but slow guys can live fast with techniques," Jackson said. "It's all about just technique in this league, and that's what I've got to work on."

But the speed does give him a trump card.

Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin worked with Jackson when he held the same position in Cincinnati in 2018. He knows all about Jackson's skillset.

"He's an outstanding cover man," Austin said. "He's got length. He's got speed. He gets football. We've got to get him up to speed here in terms of what we're doing, and then we'll move forward."

Jackson had 41 tackles and 13 pass defenses while allowing opponents to complete just 36 passes on 67 targets in his coverage in that season.

In his career, Jackson has allowed a passer rating of 85.6 when playing man and 90.7 when playing zone. That can be attributed to the fact that four of his five career interceptions have come when he's playing in zone defense with his eyes on the quarterback.

The Steelers have mixed things up in their coverages because they've been missing players in their secondary consistently throughout the first half of the season.

Even so, this season, their corners are all playing man at a rate between 38 and 41 percent.

That would seem to be right up Jackson's alley – depending on how quickly he can get acclimated to the scheme.

In his final season in Cincinnati in 2020, Jackson played 41.4 percent man coverage when he allowed 14 completions on 38 attempts.

"I've been playing man all my life, but obviously we've got to work at it every day and get back used to playing man," Jackson said. "It's going to come with repetition."