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49ers-Eagles: Can the 49ers even hope to contain DeSean Jackson?

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On Tuesday, Frank Gore was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week following an impressive 167 yard, 1 TD performance in the 49ers win over the Arizona Cardinals.  As was briefly mentioned, some folks were surprised to not see DeSean Jackson's name on the award given his incredible performance against the Giants on Sunday Night Football.  Well, Jackson ended up being named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his punt return touchdown.

As much as I loved Frank Gore's performance, if there were an award for overall player of the week, DeSean Jackson would have had as strong a case as any player with his punt return TD, along with his 178 receiving yards and receiving touchdown.  I'd say that's a rather adequate performance, wouldn't you?

The 2009 Eagles have put together some impressive offensive performances at times and have a host of intriguing weapons with which the 49ers will have to contend.  At this point, the biggest threats are in the passing game.  It sounds like Brian Westbrook will likely be out again this week, leaving the remaining Philly running backs who have been rather inconsistent at times, and downright awful the last couple weeks.

When looking at the Eagles passing game, Donovan McNabb is guiding things and Brent Celek is certainly a very solid tight end.  However, at this point DeSean Jackson is the guy who probably scares me the most.  Given his career at Cal that's not exactly shocking, but it's still the biggest issue to be addressed at this point.  Jackson can certainly be contained, but it takes a whole lot of work on a whole lot of fronts.  After all, he's continued to impress as a punt returner, and has blown past cornerbacks with ease much of the 2009 season.

After the jump we look at DeSean Jackson the punt returner, and DeSean Jackson the wide receiver.

DeSean Jackson - Punt Returner
As solid as Jackson can be as a wide receiver, the punt return game is where he is often his most dangerous.  To date Jackson is averaging 17.7 yards per punt return.  In 10 of 13 games he's had at least one 20+ yard punt return.  Generally punt returning can be boom or bust for most teams.  And yet I consider myself surprised when Jackson doesn't have a big return in a game, even if he doesn't take it the house.

Of course, this plays somewhat into the 49ers wheelhouse given the fact that they have one of the best in the business in Andy Lee.  Lee gets an impressive combination of distance and hang time that usually allows him to avoid over-kicking the punt return coverage.  Lee is 2nd in the NFL in net punt yards, and the 49ers are 14th in the league in punt return average at 8.3 yards.  While that is not fantastic, it's still solid enough.  The 49ers will be facing their toughest test of the season in Jackson.  When a team faces a great punt returner, the team will aim for shorter punts out of bounds rather than give up the big return.  I'd imagine initially the 49ers are going to be willing to play with fire and see if Andy Lee and his punt coverage team can contain the best returner in the game right now.

DeSean Jackson - Wide Receiver
Jackson was certainly a solid receiver in college, but I always thought he did most of his damage as a return man.  I was able to pull up his ESPN college stats page, and it's an intriguing group of numbers.  His final season saw an increase his receptions, but a sizable decrease in yards per catch.  I recall some complaints about his receiving skills his final season, but nothing of the sort regarding his punt return skills.

However, since taking his game to the NFL, I wonder if he's starting to turn into a better receiver?  His yards per catch this season surpasses his best year in college and it seems like we're always treated to footage of him having to slow down after burning a receiver after Donovan McNabb seems to underthrow the speedy receiver.  Whatever the case may be, I feel more impressed with him as a receiver in the NFL than I did when he was a receiver at Cal.  Maybe at Cal he felt he didn't need to bring his A-game every week, or maybe there's some other reason.  Either way, he's impressing.

Of course, that means somebody on the 49ers will get the pleasure of covering Jackson on Sunday.  This past week saw the 49ers do a masterful job against the dynamic Arizona receiving duo of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.  I'm guessing at this point we'll see Shawntae Spencer covering Jackson.  The Eagles will be without Jeremy Maclin this Sunday, but could have Kevin Curtis in the lineup.  It sounds like the top 3 receivers for Philly will be Jackson, Reggie Brown and Jason Avant.  It's a bit of speculation, but I suppose the matchups would be Spencer/Jackson, Bly/R. Brown and T. Brown/Avant.

When you've become the #1 corner, as it appears is the case with Spencer, you're going to face a team's #1 guy most every week.  Spencer did a good job last week, although he certainly had to benefit from the beating Kurt Warner took for much of the game.  It'll be interesting to see if he can keep up with speedy Jackson all game long.

DeSean Jackson can certainly be contained.  He's had his share of poor performances, but right now he's playing well, and just as importantly, his quarterback also seems to be playing fairly well.  During this 4-game winning streak, Donovan McNabb has put up very solid numbers, even if they don't blow you away at first sight.  The question now is if the 49ers can slow down what has been a rather prolific scoring team.  If they're going to do this, it will likely require finding a way to shut down both DeSean Jacksons.