Last year, the Buccaneers added Vincent Jackson from the San Diego Chargers and reaped immediate benefits, as the tall, strong receiver was the perfect target for Josh Freeman. But it’s only going to get better in 2013, if reports (like this one from Stephen Holder of the Times) are true that Vincent Jackson is going to line up in the slot more often. Because Vincent Jackson lined up in the slot, with Josh Freeman as his quarterback, is one of the most dominant offensive players in the NFL, and a total matchup nightmare.
The Proof is in the Numbers
First, let’s take a look at the numbers which show us just how great Vincent was as a slot receiver last season. Using Pro Football Focus’ “Slot Performance” signature statistic (subscription required), and doing some math based on their charting statistics, we can see that Vincent was one of the best in the NFL from the slot in 2012.
Jackson lined up in the slot for 214 routes, and was targeted on only 38 of those. But those 38 targets were put to good use. Vincent finished third in the NFL among receivers who saw 25% or more of their team’s slot snaps in terms of yards gained per target, and finished second in yards per reception (behind only T.Y. Hilton). He also scored on just over 17% of his slot receptions, which ranks third among that same qualified group.
The yards per target statistic might be even more telling than the yards per reception, as it proves he was incredibly productive despite a quarterback who doesn’t thrive on being supremely accurate. Vincent was a first down waiting to happen when he lined up as the slot receiver in 2012, and that should only continue in 2013.
Among the names that finished behind Vincent in these categories are Randall Cobb, Calvin Johnson, Marques Colston, Victor Cruz, Wes Welker, Miles Austin, and more. And while some of these players have different roles and skillsets than Jackson, the numbers tell the story of a player who is more productive per play out of the slot than many of the leagues best receivers who play on the outside, and even more productive than some veteran slot receivers.
The Proof is in the Tape
Statistics don’t always tell the full story. They can be bent and manipulated to support or attack most any point of view. So let’s turn to the tape for some more insight into how good Vincent Jackson is from the slot receiver position, and why his use there in 2013 could pay dividends for the Buccaneers.
As you can see from this first image, Vincent Jackson is lined up in the slot with a running back to his left. But the Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive scheme for the play calls for the corner on Vincent’s side to stick with the running back (LeGarrette Blount) rather than move inside to help on the more dangerous Jackson. You can already tell this is going to go well, but let’s show you what happens next.
The linebacker who was lined up “on” Vincent Jackson is now starting at Josh Freeman as one of the best receivers in the NFL gets behind him into open space. That means it’s now up to the safeties, who are either watching the far side of the field in the case of the safety at the top of the image, or the safety who maintained his position between the two receivers despite the lack of a threat on the outside. That means Jackson has a clear path into space, and this angle and distance for a throw is one of Josh Freeman’s specialties.
Here’s how the play sets up from another angle. Notice that the linebacker is the primary defender for the space that Vincent will soon occupy. For any team that doesn’t shadow VJax with a man-to-man cover corner on every play, these sorts of situations will present themselves more often when Vincent lines up in the slot.
And here’s the result. The safety isn’t quick enough to diagnose the situation and come in to help, and the linebacker is absolutely out of his league trying to recover to defend against the pass from Josh Freeman. Josh delivers a bullet that Vincent hauls in, and he stumbles home for the score.
Now I don’t mean to pick on the Chiefs, but there’s another fantastic example of how Vincent can dominate from the slot that can be found in the film for this game.
As you can see with my amazingly artistic additions to this image, there is a large amount of space between Vincent and the nearest defender, which is strange considering his status as the best receiver on the field. With a 10-yard cushion, Josh Freeman instantly knows that throwing to his primary receiver is a no-brainer for this particular play.
And what do you know, it works like a charm. There’s still a five yard cushion by the time Josh Freeman is ready to throw the ball, and that’s plenty of room to make a throw that leads Vincent into the open space left vacant by a safety who has chosen to backpedal versus attacking the open receiver out of the slot. Josh’s throw isn’t perfect on this play, but it was certainly good enough for the massive receiver he was targeting, and it led to a touchdown.
And finally, let’s move away from the Chiefs and take a look at how using Vincent out of the slot can work even in the most crucial of situations.
You may remember this as the crucial moment of the Buccaneers’ come-from-behind victory against the Carolina Panthers last season. Again, notice the ridiculous amount of space given to Jackson when he’s lined up in the slot. Linebacker Luke Kuechly appears to be the closest defender who might actually be responsible for Jackson, which is a huge mismatch, as you’ll see in the next image.
The space allowed to Jackson was much smaller by the time he got into the end zone, but the fact that he had no primary defender means that a trio of late-arriving Panthers must attempt to prevent him from catching one of Josh Freeman’s favorite sorts of throws. Linebackers aren’t quick enough to keep up with Vincent, and safeties tend to do a better job of keeping Jackson in front of them than actually stopping him from catching the football.
The Buccaneers would put Vincent in the slot once again for the two-point conversion to tie the game against the Panthers, and the combination of a slot corner who wasn’t responsible to cover him past the line, and a linebacker who bit hard on a run fake led to Jackson being open, yet again, because he was put in a position where his athleticism and talent are put on full display against inferior competition.
Putting Vincent Jackson in the slot leads to a perfect storm of positive factors for the Buccaneers. It’s a position where Vincent is almost always going to have a talent advantage on those responsible for covering him, and it leads Jackson to run routes in an area of the field where Josh Freeman is particularly good at throwing the football. So if reports are true that Jackson will be in the slot more often, and if training camp scrimmages are any indication, the Buccaneer’s best receiver could be even better in 2013.