As we pointed out in the Captain’s Blog on Monday, QB Josh Freeman has thrown for 1,047 yards over his last three outings, the most prolific three-game stretch in franchise history. You can’t do that without getting a lot of people involved in the passing game, and indeed four players have over 100 receiving yards in that span (Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams, Tiquan Underwood and Doug Martin).
Freeman has definitely spread the football around during his hot stretch, but there’s no missing the fact that Jackson is his number-one target, which was of course the intention when the former Charger signed a lucrative deal with Tampa Bay in March. Jackson has 382 receiving yards over the Bucs’ last three games, and he’s also been on the other end of four of Freeman’s nine touchdown passes in that span.
“We have a great relationship – he’s a smart guy,” said Jackson of his young quarterback. “He studies a lot of film and sees things on the field very well. I just want to make his job as easy as possible, as do the rest of our receivers. So I just go out there and try to communicate with him as best of possible, make sure we’re on the same page. We’re talking and we’re growing and we’re learning from situations. Each and every week, he’s becoming better and better, and it’s fun to play with a guy like that.”
Freeman looks for Jackson in one-on-one coverage on the outside and exploited that for gains of 95 and 38 yards on Sunday against the Saints. But he also counts on the 6-5, 230-pound receiver in clutch situations, such as he did when the Bucs needed to convert a fourth-and-one at the Saints’ 17 yard line in the final seconds of Sunday’s game. Just as with the longer fourth down that Jackson memorably converted in Dallas in Week Three, Freeman put the pass up high and hard and trusted that his receiver would be able to get up far enough and hold onto it. Jackson has made his quarterback’s confidence pay off.
However, even if he is Freeman’s number-one target, Jackson believes it is the depth of the arsenal around him that is making everyone’s numbers take off in recent weeks.
“The versatility we have moving guys around and getting different people involved is really benefitting us,” said Jackson. “We’re just continue to work and get better each and every week. We approach each and every week like that, that there are things we can improve on, and we will. We’ve got a guy that can make plays in all different positions. It’s exciting to go out there every week and know that we can put up good numbers.”
Jackson’s numbers have been expanding exponentially in recent weeks, and that has put him among the NFL’s receiving leaders. He currently ranks sixth in the NFL and second in the NFC (behind the Giants’ Victor Cruz) with his 586 receiving yards, and three of the five players in front of him have played in seven games to Jackson’s six.
Jackson will get a chance to catch up on Thursday when the Buccaneers play the first game of Week Eight at Minnesota. They’ll be coming off a short week, playing on the road and facing a defense that ranks ninth in the NFL overall and 11th against the pass. Given his 216-yard outburst against the Saints, Jackson is also likely to draw a little extra attention from the Vikings on Thursday. But if that means someone else on the Bucs’ offense finds more room to make plays, that’s okay with him.
“[Minnesota has] done a good job overall shutting down a lot of different players, entire offenses,” he said. “We’re very balanced. We’re not out here trying to get one guy off and worry about one guy’s statistics. Whoever gets the best matchup, or whatever they do predicated on their defense that allows us to be successful, that’s what we’re going to do. Whether that’s me catching one ball or me catching 10 balls, that’s fine with me. I’m going to go out there and play hard and do everything that this offense asks me to do and trust in our system.”