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Why Jameis Winston needs to catch up with DeSean Jackson, fast.

DeSean Jackson has been targeted 20 times in three games, catching nine passes for 143 yards and one touchdown. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
DeSean Jackson has been targeted 20 times in three games, catching nine passes for 143 yards and one touchdown. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Oct. 5, 2017

TAMPA — His news conference was scheduled to begin Tuesday at high noon and DeSean Jackson was nowhere to be found. The Bucs newest receiver is cooperative but hard to pin down. Whereabouts unknown. With 30 seconds to spare, he seemingly popped out of nowhere and asked the media relations representative if she was worried?

"I told you I'd be here," Jackson said.

Jackson has had a knack for showing up in the big moments. Which brings us to Thursday's game against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. If ever the Bucs needed their big free agent signing to pay off, it's in this game.

The 2-2 Patriots and Tom Brady have an explosive offense that averages 32.3 points. Their defense is in shambles, allowing an average of 32 points and big passing plays.

"It's going to be a big game, a huge game," Jackson said. "Obviously, they're coming off a loss (against Carolina). They're coming in here Super Bowl champions, it's going to be a highly anticipated game.

"I definitely like to arise in these occasions where the spotlight is on —Monday night, Thursday night, Sunday night — everyone's watching. So you get an opportunity to go out there and show the world what we're about."

Jackson hasn't disappeared from the Bucs offense, but his connection with Jameis Winston grows faint.

Of the 20 passes thrown to Jackson, including some that were caught, four were behind him, two were short, two were overthrown, two were the result of bad protection. One was caught out of bounds, one was a throwaway, one was high, yet another was a terrible read.

That doesn't include the failed two-point conversion attempt pass thrown so far behind a wide open Jackson that he came to the sideline, slammed his helmet near the bench and ripped off both gloves, spiking them to the ground.

Jackson has caught nine of those 20 targets, a 45 percent catch rate that is the NFL's fifth-worst in the league among qualifying receivers. It's the fewest receptions he has had in the first three games in any season except for 2015, when he injured his hamstring in the opener against Miami.

Jackson has 143 yards receiving and one touchdown with a long of 32 yards.

On passes of 15 yards or more, Winston is just 3 of 11 (27.3 percent) when targeting Jackson.

Winston is just more comfortable with the guys he has thrown to the past two seasons. Mike Evans (19 receptions, 227 yards), Adam Humphries (14 for 156) and tight end Cameron Brate (10 for 137) all have more catches than Jackson, who signed a three-year, $30.5-million contact in March.

Jackson's career is punctuated with prime-time plays. In his first NFL game in Philadelphia, he had a 47-yard reception and 60-yard punt return. The single-best game of his career came on Monday Night Football in 2009 when he caught six passes for a career-high 178 yards and a TD while returning a punt 72 yards for another score.

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Who's at fault for Jackson's slow start? The easy answer is that Winston, at 23, is not a polished passer. He has never thrown to a receiver with Jackson's speed.

It's important to remember Jackson has never been a high-volume receiver. He averages about 55 receptions in nine seasons. Big plays are his thing. His career average is 17.7 yards per catch.

No defense has given up more big plays this season that the Patriots. They have allowed 60 more yards per game than any team in the NFL.

Winston has taken much of the responsibility for the Bucs' failure to get Jackson the football more.

"He's a big-time player and he makes big-time plays in big-time moments. I'm patiently waiting," Winston said. "I'm definitely looking forward to the next opportunity I have to get him the ball down field because that's going to be special."

Some of the blame goes to the play-caller, coach Dirk Koetter says. Most of the time, the opposing defense dictates where the football goes. But Koetter, who calls plays for the Bucs, needs to make a bigger effort to get Jackson involved earlier. Against the Giants, Jackson wasn't targeted until 12:04 left in the second quarter.

"It's all of us,'' offensive coordinator/receivers coach Todd Monken said. "It doesn't matter what position, but there is only one ball. I told the guys, 'There's only one ball.' When you've got multiple skill players that are capable of making plays usually someone is being pulled to the podium and someone is upset.

"DeSean is a really good football player and we do everything we can with all of our players to put them in a position to be successful. We've just got to continue to work at."

Contact Rick Stroud at stroudbucs@aol.com. Follow @NFLStroud

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