When Tre'Davious White went down with a knee injury midway through the game against the Saints on Thanksgiving, the severity of the injury was unknown. For backup cornerback Dane Jackson, he knew that he needed to step up and prove to himself and to the team that he was ready for his opportunity to play.
Monday night's game against the Patriots will be Jackson's first start of the season. With White out for the season, it's up to Jackson to fill in for him down the stretch and he won't let this opportunity pass him by.
"Oh, it's a huge opportunity," Jackson said after practice Friday. "I've been telling myself since it happened, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. This is what I've been dreaming of. This is what I've been working for. Obviously, I didn't want it to happen the way it happened, but this is my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I'm ready to take advantage of it."
In his rookie year, Jackson spent the majority of the season on the practice squad. He made the most of his time on the field and made some impact plays for the team in the five games that he was active. This season, his role has primarily been as a backup, but he has been learning from some of the best defensive backs in the league and patiently waiting for his chance to show his skills.
It would be natural for Jackson to be nervous about filling in for an All-Pro corner, but he isn't. He's been putting in the work and preparing for this exact moment. He's been working alongside White and asking him any questions that he has. He gains confidence when watching film with White because Jackson is starting to see the same looks and reads that White does. Jackson also understands that he won't be out there alone and will have the full support of his teammates.
"I'm a backup, so ultimately, I have to prepare like a starter because you never know what's going to happen here or there," Jackson added. "There's nothing changing in my routine, I just keep getting more confidence from the guys that's been out there all season. I just roll with the punches."
Jackson has gotten a lot of praise from his coaches and teammates about his play style and his work ethic. Just as Jackson has confidence in himself that he can fill in and make an impact, the players around him have that same confidence.
Having two talented safeties in the defensive backfield will help the transition from White to Jackson. Both Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde have seen Jackson put in the work off the field and know he's ready to be the next man up. All they need Jackson to do is be himself.
"I mean he knows the system," Poyer said. "He trusts the guys around him. We tell him all the time, he's not out there alone. He doesn't gotta do anything other than be Dane Jackson. He's got his teammates around him. … We've got all the faith in the world in Dane. He's come in and he's made a lot of plays."
Both safeties know that he isn't going to replace the level of play that White gave the defense. All they want is for him to do his job and they know the rest of the defense will have to step it up as well.
"We love Dane, just what he's been able to do the last couple of years, coming here and working every day," Micah Hyde said. "Whenever his number is called, he goes to work. And we have a saying around here, work while you wait. While you're waiting to get in the game, you're putting in the time, the film work, the film study, the field work, all that type of stuff. So, Dane's been a part of that process. And he understands that he has to step in."
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Having the support of his teammates has been very beneficial for Jackson even from the beginning of this season. In training camp, Jackson lost the number two cornerback job to Levi Wallace but that didn't discourage Jackson and make him bitter. The young corner is strong-minded and learned from a young age that he is going to face adversity and knows how to handle it the right way.
At the end of high school and through college, Jackson lost four close childhood friends. For a lot of people, that grief is just too much to overcome. But Jackson didn't fold, and those tough life experiences only made him stronger and made him want to be successful for them. So, when he didn't win the number two job, Jackson didn't crumble in the face of adversity. He chose to work harder for when his opportunity did arise and that opportunity comes under the bright lights of Monday Night Football.
"Probably the biggest thing I learned was, obviously, there's just more work to be done," Jackson said. "Maybe I wasn't ready for that position. Maybe the man above wasn't ready to put me in that position. There's just a lot of work to be done. I've got a lot of areas that I could have improved on. When that happened, I worked on those areas and that I made sure that it won't happen again."