WR Dexter Jackson is ranked eighth in the NFC in kickoff return average
Five minutes into last Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium, just after they had scored a touchdown on the opening possession, the Green Bay Packers kicked off for the first time.
Mason Crosby's kick was a good one, high with good hang time, finally settling into the hands of rookie wide receiver Dexter Jackson three yards deep in the end zone. It was a good enough kick that Jackson could have easily decided to take a knee for the touchback.
Jackson didn't take a knee. And he didn't waste any time getting upfield, either. The speedy rookie followed his blocking, found a seam and dashed all the way to the Bucs' 32 for a 35-yard return.
Whether it was the more familiar turf, the encouraging home crowd, a new dose of confidence or something else entirely, Jackson was clearly not going to duplicate his performance from the week before in Chicago.
Jackson would finish the Green Bay game with 100 yards on three kickoff returns, later adding a season-long 45-yarder. That one opened the second half and immediately gave the Buccaneers a scoring opportunity, though this one unfortunately ended in a red zone interception off a deflected pass.
Later in the game, with the Buccaneers trailing by one point and the Packers stuck deep in their own zone, Jackson got around the corner on his final punt return and gained 19 yards down to the Green Bay 36. The ensuing drive gained only 30 yards but that was plenty to put Matt Bryant at close range for the game-winning field goal.
Though Jackson's performance against the Packers was overshadowed a bit by the work of Bryant and several big-play Buccaneer defenders, it was still instrumental in the outcome. That was a welcome change for Tampa Bay coaches after Jackson had struggled in Chicago in Week Three. He had slipped to the ground on his first two kickoff returns and spent most of the rest of the day watching from the sideline. On three punt returns that day, Jackson totaled one yard.
After Michael Clayton took over the kickoff return duties for much of the Bears game and Ike Hilliard got into the mix on punt returns, there was speculation that Jackson might not have a firm grasp on either job, despite his electrifying 86-yard punt return for a touchdown in the preseason. The Bucs, however, chose to stay with the rookie, and that paid off handsomely. For his part, Jackson never doubted himself.
"I know being a rookie you are going to through some down time and face adversity," said the second-round pick out of Appalachian State. "You just have to stay hungry and have teammates pick you up and believe in the team and be your best."
The Bucs certainly want Jackson at his best, and the Chicago game was not a good example of that. Jackson was reminded of the importance of being aggressive in his returns, and he listened. He wasn't put off by the team's constructive criticism.
"I like it," said Jackson. "Coach always told me if he doesn't get on you that's a bad thing, so the more pressure, the better."
Though his punt return numbers need a few more 19-yard scampers to get up to more interesting levels, Jackson has already had a positive effect on the kick return game; ironically, that latter job is the one that is newest to him. Jackson ranks eighth in the NFC with a 25.9-yard kickoff return average, and he's one of the few men in the conference excelling at that job while also working on punt returns. Jackson's 11 punt returns are the most for any player who ranks in the top 30 in the NFC in kickoff return average.
Of course, what Jackson really wants is to find the end zone again. He thinks he's getting close.
"I am itching but I have to stay patient," he said. "I feel like last game is something that I can build on so I am just going to keep preparing like I did last week."