It had been four years since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a 1000 yard season from a wideout when Mark Dominik opened the team check book to bring in Vincent Jackson. The Buccaneers were hoping that Jackson would fill the void left by the disappointment of players like Mike Clayton and Antonio Bryant, who were unable to sustain success over multiple seasons at Raymond James. Mike Williams was a promising player entering his third year, but could not be relied upon to shoulder the entire passing game from a receiving perspective. So with Jackson in the fold, the Buccaneers offense was looking improved, and the big play potential was there for all to see. That potential was realized in 2012.
Vincent Jackson brought a combination of size, strength, and sure-handedness that more often is found in strong possession receivers and athletic tight ends. However, Jackson has the quickness and one-on-one skills against cornerbacks to be a starting receiver in the NFL. Lacking great speed did not stop VJax from having a fantastic season in Tampa, finishing with just under 1400 yards and scoring 8 times.
One of the things the Northern Colorado product did best was finding holes in the defense and making himself an easy target for Josh Freeman. Jackson would line up in the slot from time to time, and could easily find seams and holes in the pass defense, presenting himself as a target in open space at just the right time. Against the Chiefs, an old division rival for Vincent, the Bucs wideout put his ability to break down coverages on display. He scored two touchdowns, the first coming on a play where he lined up in the slot, and broke out, then in, and found himself all alone. He held up his route so that Josh Freeman could find him in stride, and Jackson did the rest, squirming his way into the end zone. Later in that contest, Jackson would do the exact same thing, lining up inside and finding a hole in the defense, and using his body well to shield off a defender. He would then fight hard to battle through tackles and make his way into the end zone.
Jackson’s most memorable moment of the season had to be his 95 yard catch and run against the Saints, and the play showed what Jackson does best. Vincent lined up against close man-to-man coverage from a cornerback for New Orleans, and put a quick, strong move on him to get up the field. The Saints’ safety took a poor angle, and the ball wound up making its way to Jackson. The football took a deflection and was up in the air, but Jackson kept his concentration, hauled it in in-stride, and made his way down the field. He was hampered by a leg injury, and lacks elite speed as it is, so he was unable to score. But the Bucs got what they paid for, and that particular play proved it.
Looking deeper at Jackson, we see even more impressive numbers that give hope that he will not be one-and-done as many previous Buccaneer wide receivers were. Jackson caused more missed tackles (6) than he had drops (5) during the 2012 season. This shows two of Jackson’s best traits, his sure hands and his desire to f yard. Jackson managed to hold onto the football once he caught it, and failed to fumble in 2012. Thanks to Pro Football Focus for those stats, and for this: Jackson graded out as the fifth best wideout in the NFL in 2012, ahead of players like Roddy White, A.J. Green, and Wes Welker.
As for Jackson’s wide receiving partner, Mike Williams, it was more of the same. While Williams has a different skill set, he started to play more like Jackson in 2012. As previously mentioned about VJax, Mike was able to start using his body to shield off defensive backs very well this season. Once such example came against the Chiefs, when Williams was matched up against Brandon Flowers. Williams ran a fairly simple go route and was targeted by Josh Freeman, who threw the ball closer to the hashmarks than the sideline. Williams reacted by cutting inside of his defender, and keeping his body between the spot the ball would be caught and the defender. He showed excellent adjustment skills, something he showed off multiple times in 2012. In the same game, he took an awkwardly thrown Josh Freeman pass off the helmet of Stanford Routt and brought it down for a catch, followed by a speedy sprint to the end zone. He once again showed his ability to react to the flight of the ball and make a play.
The knock on Williams has to be his effort level. Mike has a bit of Randy Moss in him, and he will slow down or abandon a route on plays where he doesn’t see success happening. It’s not a chronic issue, but it happens enough that at least one interception in 2012 can be attributed to Mike giving up on a play. It’s not a huge area of concern, but something that should be brought up when giving a review of the season as a whole. Williams also dropped a higher percentage of his targets than Jackson, but neither one had an alarming amount of dropped passes.
After these two, there’s not much to say about the Buccaneers receiving corps. Tiquan Underwood had 28 catches, and no other Buccaneer wide receiver had more than 4. Underwood had his share of problems, failing to make a connection with Josh Freeman on multiple plays over the course of the season, leading the Bucs quarterback to show frustration at the young receiver. He did make some very big plays for the Buccaneers, and figures to compete for the third receiver job again in 2013.
Overall, the Buccaneers front office did an excellent job in upgrading the offense in 2012, and it was almost as simple as adding Vincent Jackson. He added his own impressive statistics, and allowed Mike Williams to have more room to work. The passing attack of the 2012 Tampa Bay Buccaneers was historic, and there’s a sense it could have been even better. Will 2013 bring even more production from the Bucs aerial attack? As Rich Gannon said, the weapons are definitely there. But weapons need ammunition, and it will be up to Josh Freeman to be sure that the 2013 Bucs passing game is locked and loaded.