One of the most remarkable stats on DeSean Jackson this year is that all of his 7 touchdowns (5 receiving, 1 rushing, 1 punt return) have been 48 yards or longer. The fact that he has 7 plays like that in a single season -- let alone just 10 games -- is amazing.
But what is also remarkable is the absence of anything else. In fact, when the ball moves past the opponent's 40 yard line, DeSean Jackson begins to disappear. And I'm not just talking about his play; the QBs just aren't throwing the ball in his direction as much. Take a look at how passes thrown to him as a percent of the team total begin to decline, and even more tellingly, how his catches and yards really nosedive. The latter two suggest his performance is more than just a lack of opportunity:
I inserted QB rating on passes targeted to Jackson as well on that figure, not because I think it is especially telling for WRs, but because it is just a handy single metric to unify some concepts.
One take-away from this could be that Jackson is terrible as the field gets short. That isn't necessarily true. He may be drawing coverage away from other players. The better articulation is probably that DeSean is un-coverable with a lot of field to work with, but can be controlled in a shorter field. And this probably isn't an area that will change a great deal: DeSean is a little guy, and knows it. He seems like someone who willingly sacrifices certain things to be able to excel at big plays. For example, he gets out of bounds rather than take a hit. You don't want him sacrificing his body for a couple of yards when you are trying to keep him fresh to get 50 yards at a time.
On the other side, the WR who is excelling those situations is Jason Avant:
In fact, one might argue that Avant is becoming such a weapon in a short field, and especially in the red zone, that we should be throwing to him a lot more. I know that every time we get the ball in the red zone, I yell at Donovan to just throw the damned ball to Avant. When they do, they have had success. He also seems to be the WR making the most out of his chances in the 39-20 range. Bottom line: more Avant!
Long term, however, we can't always go to a three wide-out formation. Which gets to my real point. It is very important that Jeremy Maclin develop into a guy who can excel with a short field. The truth is, he has all of the tools. Despite the initial misconception that he would be another DeSean Jackson, he has shown that he isn't the open field elusive guy that Jackson is, but is tough and runs nice routes, especially outs and slants, in addition to being able to stretch the field. He shows good hands and is a willing blocker. However, as yet, he isn't a strong red zone player, likely due to both experience and not having developed as much functional strength as he hopefully will given a couple of years in an NFL weight room.
Right now, the team often plays Avant and Jackson in two WR sets in the red zone. Longer term, if Maclin can develop into a better red zone player, the team might be better off with him and Avant in two WR sets, and saving Jackson for other situations.
Finally, let's take a look at Brent Celek, the other main red zone threat right now:
He's getting 36% of the attempts, 51% of the yards and 50% of the TDs in the red zone. The low passer rating is a reflection of an interception in the red zone that was targeted at him by Kevin Kolb in the Saints game. Like I said, passer rating isn't necessarily the best metric here, and this is an indication of that. Celek is clearly our biggest threat.
In conclusion, I want to be clear that I don't intend to suggest that DeSean Jackson is "the problem" in the red zone for this team. I'm not suggesting that they take him off the field when they reach opponents' territory. But he isn't "the guy" with a short field either, and it isn't clear that it is reasonable to expect him to ever be "the guy". Right now, that's Celek and Avant, but those two could use some more help. That's where the loss of Cornelius Ingram really hurts, by the way. The idea that we'd have a second TE who was a red zone threat could have made a real impact.