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Film Room: New Steelers WR Coach Frisman Jackson’s Philosophy

The Pittsburgh Steelers have made one external coaching move so far, hiring Frisman Jackson as their new WRs coach. He replaces Ike Hilliard, whose contract was not renewed after two seasons with the team. Jackson, 42, has bounced between the college and pro game and most recently spent the past two years as WRs coach of the Carolina Panthers.

Over the past several days, I’ve gone through and listened to several interviews and podcasts Jackson has done over the course of his career. It spans the last eight years from his time at NC State (where he worked with OC Matt Canada and RBs Coach Eddie Faulkner) to his time with the Tennessee Titans, Baylor Bears, and Carolina Panthers.

Here are some of the notable things I came across when listening to his interviews. There’s a variety of them and it’s hard to link to any one because they are mixed. But I found most of the results with a simple YouTube search.

Stance/Release

Here are his coaching points:

– Majority of weight on front foot: Jackson doesn’t prescribe a number to it like some coaches do (some say 80% of pressure should be on front foot) but he just says a majority. This will help prevent false stepping because in his words, even the slightest misstep off the line can throw off the timing of the route.

– Good bend of the back knee.

– Width of stance should be a little more than shoulder width apart. Jackson says this creates good explosion off the line, like a track runner coming out of the blocks. Against press coverage, he does advise receivers to shorten up his stance and bring his feet closer together (but still maintaining distance).

– Shoulders over toes. His coaching point is you should be able to look down and spit on your front toe. That’s what he’s looking for in regards to body lean to maximize explosion off the line. In another video, he said to be on the balls of your feet, not toes, because the latter will make the receiver too top-heavy.

Here’s how he demonstrated it.

– Jackson also discussed keys to beating press coverage. Overall, he says he needs receivers who are willing to mix it up. “You have to be physical,” he said in one video as receivers coach at NC State. Here are his keys to getting off press coverage.

– Hands. Make a first and bring them up to your chest. Don’t leave your hands down on your sides. Jackson says he asks his receivers if they’ve ever been in a fight. You never fight with your hands down. Hands up and protect your chest from the CB.

– Understand how to release. Know which hand to chop or swipe/rip through. His goal is to get the DB moving and off his spot by the receiver showing active hands and feet. “Get the DB to move.” Get your feet going and get on about your business. He preached violent hands and working a combination of moves, like a slap and rip to get off the line.

– Jackson says he and the receivers work everyday on their releases. That, to be fair, is probably standard for every WRs coach in football at any level. Except maybe the Big 12. They don’t have to worry about seeing much press coverage.

Routes

– Jackson was asked the three most important routes a receiver has to be able to run. He said they were: slant, in route/dig, and the “K” route.

– He called a slant a “big-man” route in terms of needing to play big and tough to make that kind of catch. Similarly, he said the dig route was often called on third down and required a fearless receiver willing to go over the middle and take a shot to make a play.

The “K route” is an inside-stem corner route. Here’s an example of what it looks like. Not a route you see too often in the NFL or in Pittsburgh but if I see it, I’ll let you know.

– On post routes, he coached receivers to sell the route like he was a running a nine-route/go-ball. “Look the defender in the eye” was one phrase he used to get the DB to open like the receiver was running straight before getting on his toes and breaking inside on the post route.

– Jackson again focused on having players run shoulders over their toes with good forward body lean.

– He also explained the best way to run a fade/go route:

Start with your inside foot up. Fight to stack and get on top of the receiver to force the DB to go through the receiver. Use the inside shoulder to help stack.

Don’t look for the ball early.

“They want to look for the football as soon as they release off the line of scrimmage. We tell our guys that a go route is 40 to 44 yards downfield. I’m telling our guys to dig. I’m not looking back, I’m digging, I’m running for 20 to 22 yards.”

Then look back for the ball and “look to the sky” instead of looking back.

Finish by accelerating through the catch and have “high hands” to catch the ball high. That takes away the chance of the DB to knock the ball down and allows for the chance of a double-catch if it’s initially bobbled.

– He finished the lesson more broadly by noting the index finger and thumb are the two strongest fingers on the hand and a lot of players drop the ball because the ball primarily hits their pinky fingers instead.

Mindset

– As a coach, Jackson said his job is to “answer the why.” His experience both as a former quarterback in high school and part of college helped better explain to receivers the “why” of a play and the mindset of what a quarterback is thinking and reading. That certainly seems to be one unique benefit of the Jackson hire.

– He also chided coaches who use too much jargon and too many big words to teach their players. “Speak in their terms” was the quote he had. He expressed frustration over all the coaches who have so many technical, detailed coaching points to run a 12-yard out. I’m sure that applies a bit more to the college game with younger and greener players but it probably applies to the NFL as well. His approach seems to be the KISS method.

– He also stressed the importance of versatility and that some preseason stars don’t make it because they made all their plays from just one spot.

– Jackson has recent experience in the college and pro game, serving as Baylor’s WR coach from 2018-2019 while most recently working for the Carolina Panthers from 2020 to 2021. On a podcast from February of last year, he discussed the mindset between college and pro.

– He started off by saying the NFL makes you bring your “A” game every single week. In college, you only had to do it once or twice a year (Jackson citing former TCU CB Jeff Gladney as one of those top guys). He defined an “A” game by understanding it’ll be a back-and-forth battle with wins and losses that require mental toughness to not get frustrated. That it’ll be a battle to beat press and most catches will be contested.

– He praised the alpha dog mentality guys like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Randy Moss possessed. That not only did they think they were the best at their position but “I am the best player on the field.”

– Jackson said the guys who make it in the NFL are the ones who understand the league doesn’t give anything. No one is safe on scholarship. These are adults with mortgages and families to support. He also noted how quickly players must figure thing out as opposed to the college game where guys may literally redshirt or spend their freshman season as a backup.

– Jackson also spoke to the occasional need to be selfless and “take one for the team.” Meaning, sometimes receivers have to run routes to open up a teammate, running a clearout route to get someone open underneath.

– From an evaluation standpoint, Jackson weighted performances against top players and especially what they do in bowl games. He believes if players can perform in that type of pressure environment, they are more likely handle the NFL’s pressure.

What Players Say

– At NC State, there was a video featuring players giving their impressions of what kind of coach Jackson is. Here are some of the phrases and quotes they used:

“Energetic, loud, ready to go”
“Driven” and goal-oriented, for himself and for his players
“Intentional chaos” in practice to prepare players for games
“Hands-on” said by two players
“Understanding, helpful” said one player new to the position
“Relates to us”
“Biggest clown” (in a joking, positive way)
“One of us”
“One of the fellas”

Players saying Jackson would take about movies and TV shows and sometimes play video games with them. This was a video from seven years ago when Jackson was in his mid-30s and probably one of the younger coaches on staff. Jackson is now 42.

Players said one of Jackson’s favorite phrases it “It’s just bad ball” when receivers would make a mistake and not carry out the details of their assignment.

Other

– Saving this section for some of the players Jackson discussed in the clips I found. As a receiver for the Cleveland Browns, he praised the teammate Dennis Northcutt was to him and credited him for teaching Jackson how to approach and play the game. Steelers’ fans should remember Northcutt being a quality receiver for a number of years, most spent with the Browns.

– He also praised the professional and workmanlike attitude former Titans’ TE Delanie Walker had when Jackson worked for Tennessee. He, of course, praised Corey Davis, who the team selected 5th overall one year, and also talked up Mike Williams’ game.

– Jackson noted his relationship with Minnesota head coach PJ Fleck. The two played together at Northern Illinois.

– While at Baylor, Jackson praised WR Denzel Mims for his talent and said he just needed to find consistency and improve his work ethic to become a better receiver. Mims finished his college career on a high-note under Jackson and became a second round pick of the Jets. Mims has had a poor NFL career and could be a trade/release candidate. I wonder if Pittsburgh would take a flier and reunite him with his college coach who brought the best out of him.

– But the player he has praised the most on separate occasions is former Baylor WR Jalen Hurd. He spent just one year with the Bears after transferring from Tennessee and moving from RB to WR. Here’s some of what Jackson has said about him.

“Jalen was one of the hardest working practice players I’ve been around. I’ve got several guys in the NFL and they’ll probably beat me up by saying this but he was the hardest working practice player I’ve ever had. Never had to twist his arm about let’s go to work. He wanted to be great. He knew his time was dwindling as a college player, he had little time to prove he could play receiver, and he went out there and did that.”

And last year, Jackson said the same.

“Guy I coached just went about his business is Jalen Hurd. I coached him at Baylor. Man, the guy worked. He didn’t say much but he went to work. He freakin’ attacked meetings. He practiced harder than any guy I ever coached. The way he practiced. He’d be physically exhausted when practice was over. He was one of the hardest practice players that I’ve ever been around as a player or as a coach and he was definitely the hardest practice player I ever coached.

Hurd has been hurt by a string of Senquez Golson injury luck, unable to ever play in a regular season games three years into his career. He had a back injury in 2019, tore his ACL in 2020, and had knee tendonitis (I’m not sure if it’s the same knee but it sounds like it is) that finally got him waived this November by the 49ers.

He’d obviously need to pass a physical but if he can do that, I could see the Steelers taking a flier on him this summer for his size, talent, and versatility in Matt Canada’s offense. Of course, it’s impossible to expect anything from him but keep his name in mind. If anyone is going to make a strong recommendation, it’ll be Frisman Jackson.

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