The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense rolled up a season-best 434 yards of offense in Sunday's win over the New York Giants, and quarterback Jameis Winston pulled off an interesting feat in the process. Winston spread the ball around so well that four different Buccaneers finished the night in excess of 60 receiving yards. That had never before happened in a Tampa Bay game.
Even more surprising: DeSean Jackson wasn't one of those four players.
Jackson has spent close to a decade making more big plays in the passing game than any other man in football. Since he was drafted by the Eagles in 2008, he has racked up 37 receptions of 50 or more yards; no other player even has 25 in that span. When Jackson's teams have big passing days – Winston threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns – he's usually one of the main reasons why.
Yet, in a game in which Winston often threw with pinpoint accuracy, most of his seven attempted connections with Jackson were off the mark. That included a quick slant in the second quarter that might have given the fleet Jackson room to run, a deep post in the third quarter in which the receiver split the safeties, and a critical two-point conversion attempt in the back of the end zone in the fourth quarter.
After the Giants game, Winston took responsibility for the lack of connection with the veteran receiver, who joined the team as a prized unrestricted free agent in March. He said he would speak to Jackson about ways in which the two could improve their joint productivity.
"Yeah, we talked, as far as a work schedule and a work basis, getting better, doing things we can do to get better [on] timing and just connecting," said Jackson on Tuesday. "Like I said, it's early. But we're out there and we practice so hard to get things right, so anytime we get out the opportunity to go out there and execute, that's what we want to do."
Winston and Jackson looked like they were on the same page for much of training camp, particularly on deep passes. However, practice and games are two different things, and so far Winston's throws to Jackson have not had a high completion rate. It's not for a lack of trying – only Mike Evans had more targets than Jackson against the Giants, and that's true for the season as a whole, too. After three games, Evans has 32 targets and both Jackson and slot receiver Adam Humphries have 20.
"I think I've just got to get on track with him," said Winston. "I have to play better in all respects. He's been doing what he does – he's been open a lot. Again, it's the third game. I don't want to get into a talk about, 'Oh, I'm going to do this. I've got to get D. Jack the ball.' It's obvious I need to get him the ball. He is going to make this team better. At the same time, he's happier with winning than anything else."
On the aforementioned two-point try, Jackson got open running across the back of the end zone, right to left, while Winston slid a few steps out of the pocket to the right. He found Jackson and quickly fired a pass in his direction, but it arrived behind the receiver. Jackson tried to make a spinning catch but the off-target throw allowed a trailing defender to catch up and break up the pass. Jackson was clearly frustrated afterward, as a completion would have given the Bucs a seven-point lead with 7:44 to play, but instead the opportunity was lost. After the game, Head Coach Dirk Koetter said he knew Jackson was frustrated and said, "Rightfully so."
WATCH: Press Conferences, October 3
In that case, Jackson was probably upset about the lost opportunity, but there's little doubt that he, like all accomplished skill-position players in the NFL, is always hoping to get the ball in his hands. The thing is, that's usually dependent on the play of Winston and others.
"The bottom line is, as skill players, they want the ball," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "But this isn't baseball where I step into the batter's box and I have my opportunity. This isn't basketball where I can create my own shot. As receivers, you're dependent on a lot of factors to get the ball. You can play really well and catch three balls for 50 yards, and you can play poorly and end up with eight catches for 100 yards, and to the naked eye you think you had a great game. The bottom line is we've got to do it better, we've got to practice it better so that when the opportunities come up we hit those."
As Jackson noted several times on Tuesday, the Buccaneers are just three games into the season. Winston, Evans, Humphries and Cam Brate (two touchdowns already) have been playing together since 2015. If there was one player in Winston's array of targets with which he might still be forging a reliable connection, one would expect it to be Jackson. That should improve as the season progresses, bringing about more of the big plays that are Jackson's specialty. The Buccaneers still had five plays of 30 or more yards against the Giants, but they don't have another deep threat as good as him.
"We practice so much," said Jackson. "We're here and we spend so much time with one another. It's not all about me, as well too. You have other guys out there that are a part of the plan too. When the time comes, hopefully we'll get clicking and we'll see how it goes.
"That definitely [plays] into it, [Winston] going out there and playing with the [other] guys for so many years. He knows what to expect; it's still fresh, it's still new with me. We all know how much he wanted me, how much I wanted to be here as well, so hopefully it will work out. That's all that matters."
Evans was as thrilled about Jackson's arrival in the offseason as was Winston. The two bonded quickly and Evans knows his veteran teammate will soon be putting up his usual numbers.
"He knows it's a long season," said Evans. "He and Jameis always work after practice on things like that, so they're going to get that rapport better. Me, as well – I'm trying to get the rapport as soon as possible. Just keep playing, the big plays are going to come."
The Buccaneers have a short week to prepare for Thursday night's game against the New England Patriots. They have already concluded their only full-speed practice of the week, so there isn't a whole lot of time for adjustments between Winston and Jackson. Still, the bright lights of a nationally-televised night game might be enough to make a difference, as Jackson has typically performed well in front of that sort of audience. He's played in six previous Thursday night games, as well as 13 on Monday night. In those 19 games, Jackson has averaged 81.7 receiving yards per game and 19.6 yards per catch, and has caught a touchdown pass in 42% of those outings. Those are even better than his career numbers in all other games: 66.7 yards per game, 17.3 yards per catch and a touchdown in 35% of those contests.
"This is going to be a big game," said Jackson. "We look forward to getting another win here on our home turf. I definitely like to arise in these occasions when the spotlight's on me. Monday night, Thursday night, Sunday night games – everyone's watching you, so we get a chance to go out there and show the world what we're about."
Winston hopes he can oblige.
"He is a big-time player and he makes big-time plays in big-time moments," said the quarterback. "I'm patiently waiting. I'm definitely looking forward to the next opportunity I have to get him the ball downfield because that's going to be special."