Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams going big
TAMPA, Fla. — They are suddenly emerging as the NFL's dynamic duo, a pass-catching tandem that has energized the Tampa Bay Buc offense and provided a potent one-two punch for quarterback Josh Freeman.
One thing is certain: Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are arguably the best pair of wide receivers the Bucs have ever had. And they're fast becoming an elite twosome — with a penchant for making big plays in traffic and giving opposing defenses fits.
Their handiwork was showcased Sunday with three key touchdowns between them in a 38-10 thumping of the Kansas City Chiefs, and it no doubt has gotten the attention of the New Orleans Saints, who visit Raymond James Stadium on Sunday at 1 p.m.
Underlying all the Jackson-Williams partnership is a chemistry that began over the summer and continues to grow.
"It started in training camp, us getting together, working together, realizing both of our strengths and weaknesses, so we can go out and do some damage … if we work together," said Williams, now in his third season with the Bucs. "That's what we've been trying to do."
They gave a little preview in the second half of their 24-22 loss to the Washington Redskins two weeks ago.
After trailing 21-6 at the half, Freeman revved up the passing attack with the help of Jackson and Williams to put the Bucs ahead 22-21 in the waning minutes. Williams finished with four catches for 115 yards, including a 65-yard reception that led to a TD catch for Jackson. Jackson had six catches for 100 yards and a touchdown grab, highlighting his afternoon with a 54-yard catch in the fourth quarter.
For the record, it marked the first time a pair of Tampa Bay receivers each had 100 yards or more of receiving yardage in the same game since Sept. 13, 1992, when Mark Carrier and Lawrence Dawsey did it.
But their combined efforts Sunday against Kansas City made the difference, and helped elevate Freeman in the process to a 124.7 quarterback rating. Williams totaled 113 yards on four catches — highlighted by a 62-yard touchdown reception that opened up the scoring in the first quarter. Jackson caught four passes for 66 yards with touchdowns of 17 and 19 yards to put the contest completely out of reach.
Jackson has lived up to his billing as the No. 1 target the Bucs needed when they signed him during the offseason for a cool $55.5 million. The former Pro Bowler who played his first seven seasons for the San Diego Chargers has given Freeman a tough, reliable over-the-middle weapon who can also go deep. And his strong work ethic and track record as a top NFL receiver has uplifted the entire Buc receiving corps, especially Williams.
As a rookie in 2010, Williams, the former Syracuse University star, stepped into the spotlight as Freeman's favorite target, making all manner of leaping and diving catches en route to 65 receptions for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns. He played an important role in Freeman's best season to date: 25 touchdowns against only six interceptions.
But as Freeman and the offense tumbled last year during a dismal 4-12 campaign, so did Williams. He suffered numerous drops and seemed to be lacking the confidence he'd displayed as Tampa Bay's No. 1 receiver from 2010. The 6-2, 212-pounder still wound up with 65 catches for 771 yards, but his touchdown total dropped to three.
All that has changed with the arrival of 29-year-old Jackson. The 6-5, 230-pounder has not only taken some of the heat off 25-year-old Williams, but he has also been a valued mentor.
"It's been great," Jackson said. "You know, Mike has been a professional. He jumped in when I started with the team in March. We came in, sat down and talked. And our relationship has been great. He's a hard-working kid. He wants to be great. We come out each and every day, and I make sure he brings his hard hat and his lunch pail and we're going to work. We're going to try to get better. With a guy like Josh, who's just as competitive and wants to improve, the sky's the limit for us."
The results are certainly hard to argue with five games into the season, with the 2-3 Bucs preparing for a home game Sunday against the 1-4 Saints. Jackson has caught 20 passes for 370 yards (an 18.5-yard average) and four touchdowns. Williams has caught 15 balls for 332 yards (a 22.1-yard average) and three scores. Their yards-per-catch currently rank first and second in the NFC (with Carolina's Steve Smith tied for second with Jackson).
And nobody is happier about all of that than Freeman, who is trying to get back on track after his well-documented down season of 2011.
"We knew the kind of player Vincent was," he said. "You know he's going to go out and make plays. It's great to have Vincent, great to have him as a teammate, a fellow captain. He's a leader and he goes out and he makes play after play on Sundays."
But Freeman also knows what Williams is capable of as a playmaker — a receiver who can go airborne for a ball in his vicinity and produce the kind of game-breaking catches he came up with on Sunday.
"He makes those catches," Freeman said. "If you have a one-on-one with a DB, you just give him a high ball, give him a chance. I can't say I've ever seen or played with a guy with the ball skills like Mike Williams. It doesn't really matter where you put it. He's going to find a way to make a play on it."
Head coach Greg Schiano echoes the sentiment.
"He's definitely playing at a high level," he said. "He's always had those ball skills, even back when he was at Syracuse and we used to play him when I was at Rutgers. That is a gift. But his focus, his concentration, his level of commitment to working at being the best he can be is really good right now. So I just want it to continue, because I think he can be a force for us going forward."
Jackson has taken it upon himself to help make Williams keep making strides by focusing on daily routines.
"Just each and every day, each and every practice, we focus on the small details of the game," he said, "whether it's releases, block-ins or just trying to be a complete receiver."
"We always talk about being aggressive toward the ball," he added. "We may not make every play, but we're going to fight for it and we'll win our share of battles out there."
Judging from recent displays, that spells double trouble for opposing defenses.
NOTES:Schiano addressed the status of cornerback Aqib Talib on Monday, in the wake of the surprise four-game suspension handed out by the NFL on Saturday for Talib's use of Adderall during training camp. The head coach stated that the plan is for Talib to return to the roster Nov. 5, in spite of his history of getting in trouble (most recently a year-old felony weapons charge in Texas that was dropped before training camp).
"He's going to be back with us," Schiano said. "There are no absolutes in anything in this world — I may not be here when he comes back. How do you know? But that's the plan, and we're going to move forward at that point. But like I've said in everything, and I say it all the time to our team, things change — day to day, week to week, month to month. I can't tell you exactly how things are going to be a month from now. I hope that we've won a bunch of games in a row. But yeah, the plan is to have him back here with us."
As for what kind of message that would send, the discipline-oriented Schiano replied, "Nobody's always right, but I guarantee you every decision we're making is strictly for one reason: that it's best for the organization. When I say best, it's not just winning. That's what we do — there are 32 teams and we're all chasing one prize. But when you're part of a community, there are a lot of things that go into the decision. I can just tell our fans and all our people who care about this, we are going to do what's best for the organization, which is best for everybody."
On another topic, Schiano praised the work of a handful of second-line players who stepped up and played well in Sunday's win, such as defensive tackle Gary Gibson and defensive end George Johnson, as well as promoted starters Daniel Te'o-Nesheim (playing right defensive end in place on injured Adrian Clayborn) and E.J. Biggers (playing left corner in place of Talib).
"I think Daniel played really good football for us, did his job," Schiano said. "But there were guys who came in in reserve roles, like a Gary Gibson, who was very productive. Biggers is a starter now, and he steps up with the absence of Talib and I thought he played very well. George got in there and did some good things."
Second-year defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, who has been working hard to come back from a torn Achilles tendon in the spring, should soon take the practice field for a 21-day evaluation period that could begin as soon as Wednesday.
Whenever the clock starts running, the Bucs will have three weeks to determine if he'll be activated to the 53-man roster. If he doesn't rejoin the roster by the end of that time, he'll be ineligible to return this season. "He'll do some stuff with us this week," Schiano said, "and then we'll just observe each day and kind of go from there and see how he responds."