S Dexter Jackson played primarily on special teams as a rookie but could see his role expand rapidly this weekend
For a player that has two career tackles, both of them assists, safety Dexter Jackson has suddenly emerged as an important figure for the Buccaneers.
Jackson's bare stat-line is not really his fault, off course. He has played in just 13 NFL games, almost exclusively on special teams, where he has proven to be very valuable. As a rookie fourth-rounder last year, Jackson was not expected to crack a starting lineup that featured Pro Bowler John Lynch at strong safety and an emerging free safety in Damien Robinson.
Expectations have changed since the 1999 season ended, however. Jackson could easily qualify as the team's most improved player from January to August; he drew rave reviews in mini-camps and summer workouts and seemed in line for bigger things. During one three-day camp after the 2000 draft, Jackson moved over to cornerback as an experiment and impressed coaches with his work there.
Then, when the Bucs hit training camp, Jackson started off on a tear. Robinson suffered a severe hamstring strain on the first day of camp, and Jackson stepped in without missing a beat. When the preseason started, Jackson picked off two passes in the opener against Washington and seemed like an old vet in the free safety slot.
However, in week two, a significant ankle sprain on the first play from scrimmage in Miami shelved Jackson right next to Robinson. Jackson didn't return until last week, when he participated on special teams against the Jets and was in for about a half-dozen snaps at free safety.
His role this weekend promises to expand again, partly because the team has revived its spring experiment. After Jackson worked at cornerback extensively during Friday's practice, picking off two passes to show he's got the hang of it, Head Coach Tony Dungy confirmed that Jackson could get playing time at a variety of secondary positions this Sunday.
"He could, depending on how things go," said Dungy. "John Lynch is a little bit nicked up. So is Ronde Barber, so we'll kind of plug Dexter in where needed. But he's ready to go."
In the Bucs' secondary, Barber, Lynch and CB Floyd Young all have dealt with muscle pulls this week, though all three practiced on Friday. Young, in fact, has been named as a Friday inactive. That in itself indicates a faith in Jackson's abilities. Though Young had seen almost no action in the defense through the first four games, he was the next man in if Barber, Donnie Abraham or nickel back Brian Kelly got hurt. That will now have to be Jackson.
"On Wednesday, when I came back (to Bucs headquarters), Coach told me that he needed me to play both positions this weekend," said Jackson. "I've been practicing at corner some. Remember, back in the three-day mini-camp, all I played was corner. So I'm pretty much familiar with the position. I have good feet and hips, so I'm okay. I can handle the position if I'm needed."
Jackson may indeed be needed. Washington has a potent passing attack, led by QB Brad Johnson, and Dungy expects them to come after the Bucs' secondary often in search of big plays.
"They know they're going to be attacked," said Dungy. "There's some games you go into where you say, 'We know if we play our game, this is a team that doesn't throw the ball downfield very much.' With these guys, you know you're going to get seven or eight opportunities that are going to determine the course of the game."
Jackson expects to at least experience that attack as a safety at points during the game.
"I know I'm going to play some at one of the safety spots; they're going to rotate us a little bit," he said. "At corner, Ronde's banged up. He's got a quad (injury) and Floyd (Young) has a hamstring, so if they need me to go in there, I'll be ready."
That would be a rapid ascension for Jackson, who two weeks ago was judged to be still not ready to play. He had hoped to make his 2000 regular-season debut in Detroit in week three, but was held out in a late decision by the coaching staff. The Bucs are pleased with the player that Jackson is becoming and want to make sure they can keep him on the field. He's physically ready now, but knows there is one more hurdle to clear.
"The thing right now is the contact part," said Jackson. "I haven't hit in basically six weeks. The first two weeks are going to be tough, my body's going to be sore, but I've got to fight through that and play ball."
That is the one thing missing from practice, but Jackson did get a taste of it in last Sunday's loss to the Jets, making two special teams tackles in his first game back. He couldn't tackle at One Buccaneer Place on Friday, but he did pick off those two passes and frequently make his presence felt.
"I try to envision things in my mind first on the practice field," said Jackson. "I believe that what you do on the practice field you do at game time. You can't take practice off and then, when game times comes, turn around and do it right. I try to do it in practice and in my mind. If I feel comfortable in both of those places, I feel like I can do it in a game, no problem."