S Dexter Jackson's sack of Brett Favre in the fourth quarter could have been a game clincher for Tampa Bay if they had been able to recover the resulting fumble
A week ago, in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' resounding win over the Minnesota Vikings, third-year safety Dexter Jackson recorded his third interception of the season.
Three days later, at the end of a normal Wednesday session with the media, Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy was asked to handicap the team's individual interception chase, as both Jackson and cornerback Ronde Barber were on pace to get eight by season's end.
Dungy played along and gave his vote to cornerback Donnie Abraham, who had just one pick through the first six games. As if on cue, in the Bucs' next game, Abraham got his hands on a Brett Favre pass and returned his second interception 46 yards into Green Bay Packers territory.
And, yes, Abraham is well on his way to becoming the team's all-time interceptions leader, with 27 in his five-and-a-half seasons. The team record is 29, held by Cedric Brown, with Mike Washington in second at 28 and Abraham in third, with a bullet.
By season's end, Dungy may just be right. But that should not obscure the fact that Jackson, in his first year as a starter at free safety, is quickly establishing himself as exactly what the Bucs said he could be: a big-time playmaker.
Jackson didn't pick off any more passes in Green Bay on Sunday – Abraham and LB Jamie Duncan go the Bucs' two interceptions – but he was instrumental in a turnover and nearly sealed the game for the Buccaneers with another one.
In all, Jackson had the most impressive numbers of any Buc defender against Favre and the Packers, combining seven tackles with his first career sack, a pass defensed and his first two career forced fumbles. And, for the second week in a row, his turnover resulted in points for the Buccaneers.
Midway through the second quarter, with the Packers leading 7-3, RB Ahman Green tried to convert a third-and-one with a run up the middle. In fact, Green got the necessary yard plus 10 more, but at the end of the play, Jackson latched onto the back's ball-carrying arm and ripped until the ball came loose.
DT Warren Sapp recovered the fumble at Green Bay's 41, setting up a seven-play touchdown drive. When QB Brad Johnson hit TE Dave Moore over the middle for an 11-yard touchdown, the Bucs had a 10-7 lead to take into halftime.
Two quarters later, each team had doubled its score and the Bucs were trying to protect a six-point lead. On third-and-four from the Green Bay 40, Jackson came on an all-out blitz from the left side of the offense, getting to Favre before he could throw and forcing a fumble. Sapp nearly fell on it again, which would have given the Bucs a marvelous opportunity to pad their lead. Instead, Green Bay's Mark Tauscher recovered it.
The man Jackson replaced this season in the starting lineup, Damien Robinson, was also coming off a bit of a breakthrough, having snared a career-best six interceptions in 2000. The Bucs might have lost a little experience with the switch from Robinson, who departed as a free agent to the New York Jets after two seasons as a starter in Tampa Bay, to Jackson, but they believe they will actually improve in the big-play department.
Jackson is already halfway to Robinson's pick total from last year and, according to Dungy, he has a nose for the ball. That, combined with the deep coverage responsibilities of the safeties in the Bucs' most common defensive alignment, the 'cover two,' makes him a good bet to keep those numbers climbing during the second half of the season.
And Jackson's speed should make him a physical presence all over the field as he continues to mature into the starting free safety role.
The Bucs had a slim lead through much of the fourth quarter Sunday at Lambeau Field, but the Packers had Favre, the king of the comeback in that venue. Though Green Bay did eventually come back to win the game, 21-20, the deciding points were scored on a punt return. The Packers had four offensive drives in the final period but failed to get any farther downfield than their own 40 on any of those possessions, recording just one fourth down.
Jackson helped limit one of those drives with a leaping pass break-up on a hard Favre toss down the left seam intended for WR Corey Bradford. Two possessions later, Jackson's sack stopped another Packer drive cold. After the game, Favre revealed during his postgame comments that the Bucs' secondary did an excellent job of disguising its coverages, contributing to his season-low 16 completions.
The Bucs' defense did surrender 352 total yards on the day, but it held the powerful Green Bay attack to two touchdowns, slightly more than the 10 points it surrendered to Favre and company a month ago in Tampa. That was in keeping with the way Dungy envisioned the game going – it was his pregame contention that Favre would move the Packers down the field at times, but that Buc turnovers could turn the tide.
For such a plan to work, Dungy needs playmakers in his secondary to grab the big takeaways. It appears he may have found one in Jackson.