TAMPA — Bucs safety Tanard Jackson said having to sit through a season-opening four-game suspension served as a wake-up call, a "reality-setter," that has led him to the top of his game.
"It definitely helped me prioritize my life, what's most important," said Jackson, 24. "And my job, the game I love to play, is at the top of my list."
Jackson has two interceptions and a forced fumble in the past two games, delivering much-needed impact plays that the struggling defense has lacked throughout much of this season.
"Tanard had an immediate impact as soon as he got back," coach Raheem Morris said. "It was 'welcome back' with a hit, a 'welcome back' with an interception for a touchdown — you name it. He's made big plays, he's made big tackles. He's been the guy he was before he left and has come back and developed a little bit of a hunger.
"Some things work out for a reason. … I'm not sure if (the suspension) wasn't a good thing for Tanard Jackson."
Jackson had been a constant in the secondary since he was drafted out of Syracuse in the fourth round in 2007, becoming the first Tampa Bay defensive player to start 32 consecutive games to begin his career. His ability (and versatility as a former cornerback) made him one of the Bucs' best young players, and he expected to be one of the team leaders on defense this season.
That's why Jackson said he believes he let the team down when he was suspended by the NFL for the first quarter of the season after violating the league's substance-abuse policy. The games, and losses, were difficult to watch but helped him, he said, "not take anything for granted."
"When you're away from the team, away from everything, away from what you've been doing for years, your livelihood, the approach is now a little more serious," Jackson said.
Although Jackson worked out while on suspension, defensive coordinator Jim Bates said one of the toughest things for players to regain after missing time is their tackling ability. Bates pointed out that teams don't do full-speed tackling in practice, being conscious of potential injuries.
"I think Tanard really missed that as far as missing four weeks in a row of practice and getting out there and hitting people," Bates said. "But his breaking on the ball, his intelligence, his range, all of that, is coming back. He's made two interceptions, he's very valuable, and his tackling will improve to where we can get the complete game out of Tanard."
Jackson's big plays have come in key moments. Against Carolina, he forced a fumble near the Bucs goal line, resulting in a turnover. And midway through the fourth quarter, he intercepted a Jake Delhomme pass and returned it 26 yards for a tying touchdown.
Against the Patriots in London, Jackson picked off a Tom Brady pass in the end zone in the second quarter, snapping the quarterback's franchise record of 183 attempts without an interception. Jackson's two interceptions (in just three games) match his career high set in 2007.
"(Jackson) has been great," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "He's just a natural football player. You can play him at corner, nickel, safety, wherever. He's just a guy who goes in and loves to play, and makes a lot of plays when he's out there."
Jackson said he feels like he's playing at a high level, but it rings hollow considering the team is 0-7.
"It's still about wins with me," he said. "If we can all make our individual plays, and all do that collectively, win our one-on-one battles, that's when I feel like we'll get this team to jell together, and pull together and get our first win."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.