TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — If anyone can appreciate what Vincent Jackson can do for an offense as much as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it’s probably the San Diego Chargers.
One of the NFL’s most productive receivers in seven seasons with his old team, Jackson has helped transform the Bucs into an entertaining, high-scoring act.
The Chargers (4-4) enter their first game against their ex-teammate with the same record as Tampa Bay (4-4), however the Philip Rivers-led offense hardly resembles what Jackson left behind when he signed a five-year, $55.55 million contract as a free agent in March.
“It goes without saying that you certainly miss a great player like Vincent Jackson. He was a great teammate, a good buddy of mine and obviously a great player for us,” Rivers said. “You miss having him here. He’s having a heck of year, and you pull for him every week except this one.”
While Jackson is averaging a league-leading — and career-best — 22.9 yards per reception on 31 catches for 710 yards through eight games, the mistake-prone Chargers have sputtered offensively with Rivers throwing for 12 touchdowns with 10 interceptions.
Uncharacteristically, the Bucs are fifth in the NFL in scoring at 28.3 points per game, thanks in part to Josh Freeman completing nearly 57 percent of his passes for 1,257 yards, 11 touchdowns and one interception over the last four weeks.
Rookie Doug Martin is coming off back-to-back games with over 200 total yards from scrimmage, including 251 rushing and four TDs in last week’s 42-32 victory over the Oakland Raiders.
The 29-year-old Jackson, whose 18.7 yards per catch average is best in the NFL for receivers with at least 100 receptions since 2008, has a 216-yard game this season and has scored six touchdowns, five of them in the past five games.
His presence has helped fellow receiver Mike Williams (29 catches, 504 yards, 17.4 average, five TDs) and also opened things up for Martin, who’s third in the league with 794 yards rushing.
“Vincent has been really great for our offense, especially for our receivers. He came into a situation where he is clearly the elder statesman. Other than Vincent, it is a young room,” Bucs first-year coach Greg Schiano said.
“From day one he has been providing leadership, a work-ethic on the field, work-ethic in the classroom, teaching our guys how to be a true professional,” Schiano added. “He has been a really fine ambassador for our team in the community. We feel fortunate to have him.”
While emphasizing he’s appreciative of a group of targets that include tight end Antonio Gates and receivers Malcolm Floyd, Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal and Danario Alexander, Rivers talked about what kind of player Jackson is both on the field and in the locker room.
He pointed out that while the 6-foot-5, 230-pound receiver rarely played on special teams — except in certain situations — with the Chargers that Jackson kept a detailed notebook about San Diego’s specialty units.
“He’s just a real committed player. He practiced hard, he prepared hard and was good in the locker room. You can’t say enough positive about my experience with him and the professional he is,” Rivers said.
Jackson had three 1,000 yard receiving seasons and was a two-time Pro Bowl selection with the Chargers, finishing with 272 receptions for 4,670 yards and 37 touchdowns in 92 games.
“Because he’s big and fast and physical, it’s easy to just label him a deep target and a jump ball guy. But he’s much more than that,” Rivers said. “It was unusual for a guy with his size, both height and strength, to be as diverse as he was. He was really good on underneath stuff, the quick slants, all those things. … Obviously he’s a stretch-the-field kind of guy. He’s averaging 22 yards a catch, but I think he was just so diverse.”
Now he’s doing the same things for Tampa Bay, which averaged a NFL-leading 34 points, 472 yards and 9.6 yards per game in October. The Bucs began November with a season-best 515 total yards at Oakland.
“It’s fun. We’ve got a lot of different weapons. Our offensive coaches do a great job of giving teams different looks and spreading the ball around,” Jackson said.
“With as many weapons as we have, they’re bringing it every ballgame. We’re in every ballgame, and give ourselves a chance,” Jackson added. “We’ve got a great defense that’s playing well. We’re all improving. We can play better in all three phases, but it’s fun to play in an offense like this that can be very explosive.”
Just like his days in San Diego, where the Chargers are coming off a 31-13 victory over Kansas City. The win stopped a three-game skid that capped a stretch of four losses in five games following a 2-0 start.
Chargers cornerback Quentin Jammer said it will be an “interesting” challenge for the San Diego secondary to try to contain the speedy Jackson.
“He’s one of my top five receivers in the league. It’ll be one of those games I get up for,” Jammer said. “You can’t go in and be intimidated by his size. I think a lot of people are. People forget that even though he’s big, he can still run. He can fly. They go in thinking he can’t and he flies by people.”
Rivers called it an important game, with both teams trying to build on momentum from last week.
Despite being .500, the Chargers trail first-place Denver by one game in the AFC West.
“The fact is we’re 4-4 at the halfway mark. … We had a little rough stretch. We lost some games in a tough fashion toward the end … but we’re battling through that,” Rivers said.
“The biggest thing for us, and it’s pretty basic to winning games, is No. 1 we have to protect the ball,” San Diego coach Norv Turner said. “When we don’t turn the ball over we have an opportunity to win.”