Rookie safety making everyone pay attention

BOURBONNAIS - It was just a couple training camp practices last week in the dog days of summer, but rookie safety Eddie Jackson made everyone sit up and take notice.

On two separate occasions, he traveled half the width of the field, arrived at the last possible moment and intercepted deep passes that could have gone for huge gains.

For Jackson, those two plays were proof that he is all the way back from last year's fractured leg that ended his senior season at Alabama after eight games. The picks also were an indication that the fourth-round draft choice was making progress learning the Bears' defense.

"Especially after my injury - battling back and seeing (that) I can still make plays on the ball (was huge)," Jackson said. "For me, personally, it (means) a lot. It's just something fun."

The Bears' defense didn't have much of that kind of fun last season. So those plays also provided hope for a secondary starving for turnovers after intercepting just 8 passes last season.

"Just to see the guys, how they react to it, and how the coaches react to a turnover here is just big," Jackson said.

That's in large part because the Bears forced just 11 turnovers last season, the fewest in the NFL and a franchise record low. For comparison, Kansas City led the league with 33 takeaways.

The Bears and every other NFL team knew all about Jackson's ability to make plays on the ball and then do something with it before they drafted him. As a junior at Alabama, he picked off an SEC-best 6 passes and returned them for 230 yards, including 2 touchdowns. Last year as a punt returner, Jackson averaged 23.0 yards and scored 2 touchdowns on just 11 attempts.

"He has good ball skills, that was a check in his corner from the get-go," Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "Obviously he's a guy that catches punts, so he's got good ball skills. He's got good range. He's athletic. He played some corner in college, so we've seen some of that athletic ability."

Jackson has demonstrated the play-making ability to become a starter at safety as soon as opening day, and he could also be the Bears' No. 1 punt returner. That could overload some rookies, but the Bears like Jackson's potential and that he was a three-year starter in a premier program.

"Every case is different," coach John Fox said. "But his football maturity level is pretty high, so I think he'll adapt pretty quickly."

The key question Jackson must answer before he replaces two-year starter Adrian Amos and joins veteran safety Quintin Demps in the secondary is a basic one.

"We'll just have to see him tackle," Fangio said. "We can't afford to have anyone out there that can't tackle, so tackling will be a determining factor for him.

"As a safety, you've got to be a smooth operator. You can't have mistakes. You learned back in pee-wee football, somebody's dad told you, 'You're the last line of defense.' It's true. You can't have mistakes back there."

Jackson can make highlight-worthy plays on the ball from now until the end of the preseason, but if he can't tackle, he won't be on the field much. One of the few knocks on him coming out of Alabama was a lack of physicality.

"That was something that a lot of people were second-guessing," he said. "I've just got to come here and be real physical. That's something I've really been working day-in and day-out at practice, especially since pads have come on. Everyone's been taking notice."

With the lack of production and frequent turnover among the Bears' recent safeties, Jackson is aware of the opportunity he has to become a starter early in his career. But that represents only part of his motivation.

"I don't want to let my coaches and teammates down," he said. "The (Bears) took a chance on me, drafting me after a bad injury, when a lot of teams didn't. I just want to come in and prove to them I'm here to work and get better and do whatever it takes."

Jackson gets his first chance to audition in Thursday night's preseason opener against the Denver Broncos at Soldier Field, and he knows what he needs to show.

"That I can be really physical, and that I'm a good tackler in the open field," he said. "That I can come downhill and play the run. Also, that I can play the ball as well."

That last part, they already know.

• Follow Bob's Bears reports on Twitter @BobLeGere.

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