Through two games, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had two effective offensive players: running back Doug Martin, who averaged 5 yards per carry on 29 attempts against the Saints last week, and receiver Vincent Jackson, who has 231 yards on just 12 catches, an average of 19.3.
Jackson is one of the tougher players to match up against in the NFL: He’s listed at 6 feet 5 inches, 230 pounds, built more like a tight end than a receiver. Jackson is fast enough to play on the outside but versatile enough to line up in the slot.
“They’ve run a lot of three-receiver sets, and he’s normally in the slot but not always,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “In their two-receiver sets, he could be either on the weak side or on the strong side. They move him around. Finding him is definitely an issue because he’s not always in the same spot, but wherever he is you’d better be aware of him.”
“He’s pretty unique,” said Patriots safety Steve Gregory. “I was with him for a long time out in San Diego. I know him pretty well, and he’s a great guy and he’s a heck of a football player. His size, his ability to stretch the field, go up and catch the ball, he does it in the run game as well, he’s a good blocker. He’s pretty much just an all-around good receiver.”
Gregory and Jackson were Chargers teammates for six years. Both left San Diego in 2011, Gregory signing a free agent deal with New England and Jackson with Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers gave Jackson a five-year, $55.55 million contract last season, and he responded with 72 receptions for 1,384 yards (a league-best 19.2 yards per catch) and eight touchdowns.
“Obviously, he’s a great wide receiver in the NFL,” said Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “He has a tremendous combination of size, speed, ability, the run after the catch. He does a good job of breaking tackles, whether it’s a stiff-arm or just being able to get through arm tackles.
“He does a good job getting off the ball vs. press coverage, and then just does a great job in his routes, understanding the coverage that is being played against him, finding the open zone if it’s zone [defense], working away from leverage if it’s man, being able to take the top off the defense in the vertical pass game. Certainly he has a phenomenal skill set for his position, and it’s his intangibles that make him really an outstanding player.”
Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman is 24 for 53 on the season, so half of his completions have gone to Jackson. Keeping the ball away from Jackson would force Freeman to look to one of his other options, but doing that is not an easy task.
In the past
At this time last year, Aqib Talib and LeGarrette Blount were Buccaneers. But Talib was traded to New England Nov. 1 for a fourth-round pick, and Blount came here on draft weekend in a swap for Jeff Demps.
Talib colorfully answered, “I play for the Patriots, baby. We good,” during the week when asked about Tampa Bay’s reported locker-room issues.
Blount also declared his allegiance to New England when asked about his former team.
“I’m a Patriots player now. I don’t play for the Bucs no more,” the running back said. “I don’t look at them as a former team, I look at them as somebody I’ve got to play against, just like everybody else.”
Blount added that he feels no extra motivation this week, facing the team that initially signed him as a rookie free agent out of Oregon in 2010.
Belichick’s first game as coach of the Patriots, Sept. 3, 2000, was against the Buccaneers. But it wasn’t a successful debut as New England lost, 21-16.
“It wasn’t a great start,” Belichick said. “We had our chances there at the end. We had some shots inside the 10-yard line, 15-yard line. We just couldn’t get it in.”
The Patriots scored on a 39-yard Drew Bledsoe-to-Terry Glenn touchdown with 3:07 left to get to 21-16, but the 2-point conversion failed. They got the ball back with a little less than two minutes to play but were out of timeouts. New England advanced to the Tampa Bay 22, but ended the game with four straight incompletions.
The Patriots have played the Buccaneers twice since that meeting, winning both.
Bring a book
The Patriots are holding a book drive on Sunday and ask fans to bring new and gently used children’s books to Gillette Stadium for donation in the Celebrate Volunteerism bins at entrance gates.