Expect Manning to Attack Bucs' Weakest Link

Rookie free safety Tanard Jackson will be tested by Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and the Colts' receivers this Sunday. Find out from Brad Keller exactly why Jackson may be Tampa Bay's weakest link in a secondary that is playing well this year.

Even though he's a rookie who used to play cornerback, Tanard Jackson is still the starting free safety of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And in Monte Kiffin's scheme, the free safety cannot be ignored.

Drafted in the fourth round (106th overall) of the 2007 NFL Draft out of Syracuse, the Bucs' coaching staff quickly determined that Tanard Jackson did not possess the coverage ability or top-end speed (4.53 in the 40) to play cornerback (his position in college) at this level.

While he was unable to start or even receive spot duty in the nickel or dime package as a cornerback, he still won the starting job at free safety and has maintained that status so far this season. And that's not too shabby for a rookie fourth-round pick, even at a non-premium position.

However, he is still a rookie and there are still holes in his game -- and there's definite potential for the Indianapolis Colts to exploit his deficiencies in the middle-intermediate area and over the top.

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning should be looking to get the ball to tight end Dallas Clark over the linebackers and in front of Jackson on his side. In addition to lacking quality top-end speed, Jackson also lacks short-area quickness -- as evidenced by his 10-yard dash (1.58 - multiply that number by 4 and you'll see what I mean) and 20-yard dash (2.63 - multiply that by 2, same deal) times. Manning should be able to take advantage of this by lining Clark up to his right and sending his tight end on slant, post, and in routes 15 to 18 yards from the line of scrimmage. Clark should be able to settle in behind the linebackers and in front of Jackson, giving Manning enough of a window to get him the ball before Jackson closes.

Tanard Jackson closes in on David Patten
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 (very similar to Tony Dungy's Tampa 2) requires the safeties to share the deep part of the field. Jackson will therefore be tasked to cover the half that is usually Marvin Harrison's territory, who is questionable with a knee strain. Manning and Harrison have been successful in the past at duping young safeties and corners with double-moves, coupled with pump fakes by Manning. If the Colts quarterback can get the rookie to bite on a few pump fakes (since Jackson knows that he needs to get a good jump on the ball to compensate for his lack of a short burst), there should be wide open, big plays to be had over the top.

Additionally, if Kiffin decides to open the defense up in standard formation with seven in the box and Manning calls several successful running plays to Joseph Addai (his usual choice when a defense opens up in a pass defense formation), Kiffin will be forced to bring strong safety Jermaine Phillips "into the box" because he is bigger at 6 foot 2, 220 pounds as opposed to Jackson (6-foot tall, 200 pounds) and more experienced. If that happens, it will leave the Bucs in a Cover 1, putting Jackson on an island, responsible for the entire deep area of the field. In that situation, Manning simply needs to throw to the side of the field that Jackson is not favoring (presumably in Reggie Wayne's direction) and it will be easy pickings for Indy.

The X-factor is Kiffin himself. He has had considerable success for a long time in the NFL using a scheme that is, at its core, very simple. This speaks to his abilities as a teacher and coach -- a man that is able to adroitly accentuate the strengths of his players and hide their weaknesses.

Jackson is this defense's weakest link. It's up to Manning and the Colts to tear the chain asunder and for Kiffin to keep it together.

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