CHARLOTTE – Rookie cornerback Donte Jackson is still relatively unknown outside the Panthers and LSU fan base.
That might change Thursday night.
The 6-2 Panthers are set to face the 5-2-1 Steelers in Pittsburgh on Thursday Night Football. It’s a big stage for the fiery second-round pick who possesses a lot of talent and a lot of personality.
“It’s what you dream of,” Jackson said. “Oh, and it’s my birthday, too.”
That’s right, Jackson turns 23 on Thursday.
His present from the Panthers just might be a good amount of work against the league’s best receiver after a short week of practice. Happy birthday, Donte!
Steelers All-Pro wideout Antonio Brown isn’t physically imposing, but he terrorizes secondaries. He is extremely shifty and quick. Jackson brings similar attributes to the table.
“I’m pretty sure that matchup will be an emphasis,” Jackson said.
It would make sense for Jackson – with help over the top – to match up against Brown, even though No. 1 cornerback James Bradberry is having a stellar season and is coming off a lockdown performance against Bucs wideout Mike Evans, who had one catch on 10 targets this past Sunday.
Bradberry is built to battle big-bodied receivers with his strength and his long arms. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound JuJu Smith-Schuster is no slouch – he actually leads Pittsburgh in receptions and yards – and he’s a more ideal matchup on paper for the 6-foot-1, 212-pound Bradberry.
Jackson, meanwhile, was drafted with the idea of matching him against smaller speedy receivers. At 5-foot-10, 181 pounds, Brown is a speed demon, and a whole lot more.
“I always dreamed of being a team’s lockdown corner against that go-to guy,” Jackson said. “I’m forming out to be that, and they are counting on me. To get an opportunity like this on Thursday night, prime time, I know everyone is going to be watching. Just have to do what I’ve been doing.”
There is still plenty of room to improve and mistakes each week to eliminate, but all in all, Jackson has been one of the most impressive rookies in the NFL. He’s tied for the league lead with four interceptions and has started every game.
Brown, a six-time Pro Bowler, has apparently taken notice.
"They are doing some great things on the back end," he said. "They've got a rookie corner over there with exceptional speed. We're going to be up for a great challenge."
This could shape up to be the greatest challenge of Jackson’s football life, at least to this point.
The bright lights of Thursday Night Football will be shining. But no moment seems too big for Jackson, who has one birthday wish.
“Just want that W.”