Tanard Jackson wasn't hard to miss last Saturday against Jacksonville. It seemed, at times, as if he was the only backup defensive player making plays.
That wasn't the case. But on a night when the second-team and third-team defense were shockingly poor, Jackson shone like a sun on a cloudless Florida day.
And fans weren't the only ones to notice.
"He's making it hard to make decisions (about playing time)," defensive backs coach Raheem Morris said.
"He might have been the defensive player of the game by the way," head coach Jon Gruden said. "He had 12 great snaps."
The fourth-round selection from Syracuse (6-foot, 200 pounds) displayed the coverage skills that led him to five interceptions during his college career. He's also showing the pure safety skills that made the Bucs believe they could take the life-long cornerback and convert him to a safety.
In fact, he's making the conversion look easy, and putting heat on starter Jermaine Phillips in the strong safety competition.
"He showed us [during the Senior Bowl] that he has the ability to adapt, but we had no idea he could do it this quickly," Morris said. "He's making our scouts look like geniuses."
|Tampa Bay safety Tanard Jackson (foreground) helps cornerback Sammy Davis defend on a play. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)|
Jackson, who went through a light workout on Monday after suffering what Gruden called a "slight hamstring pull" on Saturday, doesn't seem too impressed with himself.
"I was just trying to make the play when the opportunity comes," Jackson said. "That's what I did."
He made four that caught everyone's attention, three of which came in succession after wide receiver Maurice Stovall's fumble deep in Jaguars territory was returned to the Tampa Bay 5-yard line in a tie game.
Play 1: Defending tight end Marcedes Lewis — at 6-foot-6, a full six inches taller than Jackson — Jackson swatted away a sure touchdown pass. Jackson didn't just swoop in from his position, either. He played Lewis at the line of scrimmage, gained inside position and made a physical play on the ball.
"The best way to play a guy like that is to out-athlete him," Jackson said. "He's so big, he's going to use that to his advantage. Me being smaller I have to use my quickness and my ability to move around. That's what I try to do — keep my arms away from him. And then once I see the ball go up and try to make a play on it."
Play 2: After batting away that pass, Jackson made his first tackle of the game in the Jaguars' backfield, tracking down Greg Jones from behind at the 2.
Play 3: The Jaguars attempted a dive play to the left side, again with Jones. This time Jackson came in from the near side and clipped Jones' ankles just enough to slow him down for the other defenders to keep him out of the end zone.
The Jaguars were limited to a field goal.
Play 4: Later in the second quarter Jackson found himself in coverage against another tall wide receiver — Matt Jones. The third-year pro ran a corner route in the end zone, and this time Jackson admits he was a little less sure of his positioning. But he still found a way to make the play and keep Jones from the touchdown reception.
"That one I didn't know where the ball was," Jackson said. "I just completely played his hands. When he went up, I went up. It worked out well."
Most NFL safeties are relied upon for two key talents — run support and tackling. Safeties in the Cover 2 play the deep middle, which requires basic coverage skills, but a safety's job in that position is to keep plays in front of him.
Jackson, however, has no qualms playing the football like a cornerback as he's playing safety. He believes his coverage skills are an asset.
"I think like a corner," Jackson said. "I played corner for four years at college, so I'm still playing with a corner mentality — being able to cover and being able to break on the ball when I see it. I think it definitely helps me, my ability to come down (with the ball) because it helps our defense. When you have a safety that can come down and cover — and it's not just me, all of our safeties can cover — when you can come down and cover it allows the defense to do a few more things."
Jackson's night ended early in the third quarter when he left the field clutching the hamstring on his right leg. Jackson admits it freaked him out because he's never had a problem with his hamstrings before. Jackson said he relaxed when trainers told him the pain was only leg cramps. Gruden later talked about Jackson's hamstring on Monday. Jackson missed practice again on Tuesday, leading to questions about his availability for the Miami game.
That third preseason game is called the "dress rehearsal" game, when starters usually get plenty of time to prepare for the season opener. Jackson may not start, but he'll see plenty of playing time if he's healthy. He's already shown Gruden and the coaching staff his ability to not only play at a NFL level, but adapt to different positions from week to week.
"Last week against New England he played 15, 18 snaps as Ronde Barber's backup in the nickel," Gruden said. "Then this week we wanted to book him back there at safety. That's very rare for a young guy, to go in there and handle all the instinctive mental parts of those two positions as well as he has. He's a rare guy above the neck."
In fact, Barber's name came up against when Morris talked about Jackson's factor grade. The Bucs grade their defensive backs on whether they make plays when the ball is in the air or not.
On Saturday against the Jaguars, Jackson was six-for-six. Perfect.
"That's Ronde Barber-ish," Morris said.
Barber has nothing to worry about, but Phillips might be feeling the heat. At the start of camp, it seemed Phillips played well enough to hang on to his job. Morris already admitted Jackson is making the decision much harder. Two weeks of preseason football probably doesn't mean Jackson will steal the job. But Jackson may cut into Phillips' playing time nonetheless.
"We play three all the time, but we have a saying in our room," Morris said. "The hot man stays in. Right now he's the hot man."
Hearing that, a thin smile crept across Jackson's face.
"Let's hope I stay hot," Jackson said.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors.