ENGLEWOOD | Exhibit No. 1 in support of Vic Fangio’s desire to convert Kareem Jackson into a fulltime strong safety is the 10th-year pro’s jackhammering, fumble-causing, touchdown-saving, touchback-inducing, bone-crunching hit of Chargers running back Austin Ekeler.
On fourth-and-goal from the 1 and with 7 seconds remaining in the half, Ekeler lined up on the right side of the offense, then raced in front of Philip Rivers, taking the toss and eyeing the goal line. Cornerback Isaac Yiadom came free, forcing Ekeler to bow his path to the pylon.
Jackson darted parallel to the goal line and speared L.A.’s tough tailback, jarring the ball loose a foot from the end zone, preserving Denver’s 17-0 halftime lead and maybe even saving their season.
“Those are the types of plays we had envisioned when we brought Kareem in here to play safety,” Fangio said after Denver avoided the first 0-5 start in franchise history with a 20-13 win.
“It’s always been a part of me,” Jackson said of the reputation he built as one of the league’s hardest-hitting defensive backs during nine seasons in Houston.
The Texans tried converting him to safety last season, but injuries in their secondary forced him back to cornerback by October, and he ended up playing the best season of his career, posting 87 tackles, breaking up 17 passes and forcing two fumbles, all career highs.
Jackson parlayed that production into a three-year, $33 million free agent deal with Denver, where he had one of the highlight hits of his career four months earlier, a jaw-dropping, bone-rattling hit of Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay.
Or, as GM John Elway exclaimed when introducing Jackson, “Kareem welcomed Phillip Lindsay to the NFL.”
Jackson ranked that hit as “1B” on his career highlight reel, just behind his stop of a similarly undersized running back with the Vikings.
He wasn’t sure this week where to rank his play on Ekeler but he did say, “It was my first time in my career getting the chance to be in that position to make that type of play.”
The Broncos’ plans to play Jackson at safety were interrupted last month. Because of CB Bryce Callahan’s lingering issues with his surgically repaired left foot, Jackson played the nickel for the first three weeks. Then, a tight hamstring sidelined him against the Jaguars, who capitalized on his absence with a 269-yard rushing performance at Denver in Week 4.
“We definitely missed him against Jacksonville,” free safety Justin Simmons said.
“Obviously, things are better when he’s out there.”
In his first full game at strong safety, Jackson’s 10 tackles led the team and the Broncos allowed just 35 yards on the ground.
“We all see what he can do at safety,” cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “He’s a major impact for us there. To be able to just play free and roam and be able to have open-field tackles, that’s definitely something that we needed in the middle of the field.”
Mike Vrabel, whose Tennessee Titans (2-3) visit Denver on Sunday, coached in Houston from 2014-17 and said his “toughness, versatility, instincts” all allowed Jackson to move so seamlessly to safety.
“He’s active, he’s disruptive, he can cover, he can trigger (sudden reaction),” Vrabel said. “He made a fantastic touchdown-saving play last week, plays with great effort, cares about the team, throws his body around.”
The Broncos’ secondary shuffle shows no sign of abating. The team placed CB De’Vante Bausby (neck) on IR after he was temporarily paralyzed on Sunday and signed eighth-year pro Coty Sensabaugh, who is out to prove he should have been in somebody’s training camp this summer.
“I feel like I was one of the best corners in free agency this offseason,” Sensabaugh said before his first practice Wednesday. “And here’s my chance to go prove it.”
He could get that opportunity soon because Yiadom, despite his heads-up play that allowed Jackson to meet Ekeler in the nick of time, has been dogged by penalties and poor play in his second season.
“He’s got to go out and make some plays so he can be confident. I don’t think he is at this moment,” Fangio said. “But he’s going to have to change that and it isn’t going to be by going to sit on somebody’s couch and get talked into it. You have to go out there and make a play or two to regain your confidence.”
No matter his rotation, Fangio wants to keep Jackson at strong safety.
“You can argue he can play other positions better than the people we have there,” Fangio said. “We’ve got to weigh all that in the final analysis, but it would be my preference to keep him at safety.”
“I’m pretty comfortable there,” he said.