After talking to offensive assistant Chris Meidt a couple weeks back, it seemed natural that the next member of the coaching staff I talk to come from the defensive side of the ball. Safeties coach Steve Jackson was helpful enough when I asked him about his golf pants last week, so I took the opportunity to set up a time when we could sit down and talk in more depth. In the end, the conversation covered, among other things, his coaching philosophy, LaRon Landry‘s natural position, Chris Horton, and — of course — abstract painting.
But the first thing I noticed in his office was the enormous sombrero sitting on the desk. Still flush with success from the golf pants conversation, I thought there might be an equally detailed story here. “No,” Jackson told me, “that’s just still there from Cinco de Mayo.”
Fair enough. With hat talk over, I moved to issues of marginally more importance.
So how do you and [secondary coach] Jerry Gray split things up? Do you just handle safeties and he works with the cornerbacks?
Jackson: “Kind of. On the surface, yes. But Jerry and I, we’re like twins that were separated at birth. Jerry and I played together in 1992, he was my DB coach a couple years later. Then in Buffalo he was my boss, and now … we’ve done it all together. We pretty much think alike. He’ll start a sentence and I’ll finish it, or I’ll start and he’ll finish it.
“We can draw from experience, too. ‘You remember how whenever we ran this versus Jerry Rice and John Taylor, this happened.’ It all goes back to the same things, and that’s pretty much the relationship that we have.
“It’s nothing specific as far as, ‘These are your specific duties, those are my specific duties,’ but we just work like two brothers.”
Whatever the reason, you two have experienced a lot of success with safeties and corners during your tenure here. What do you attribute that to?
Jackson: “Well, we’ve got a good scouting department. You know, the guys that we bring in during free agency, the guys that we draft, we’re all pretty much on the same page when we bring them in. And they’re specifically guys — mental-wise and physical-wise — that fit what we do.
“We’re an aggressive secondary, and you’ve gotta have guys out there who aren’t afraid to lay it on the line. You’ve gotta have safeties who are tough AND who can cover. Corners that can tackle AND that can cover. Guys that aren’t afraid to get in front of 93,000 fans at FedExField — and get beat, sometimes, and then come back the next play and do it all over again with no fear.
“Those are the guys that we look for, and if we make a mistake, we try to fix it and get another guy that’ll be better.”
Well, the most obvious success story — whether coaching or scouting — was Chris Horton. Did you know he was gonna do that well?
Jackson: “Before I met him, no. But as you know, when you talk to Chris, you can tell he’s going to be successful. He has that quiet confidence about him, and he’s best described as a football PLAYER. Not a football athlete — you get a lot of guys with a 4.3 [time in the forty yard dash], they’re 6-2, 215, muscles everywhere, and they’re just average players. Chris is a player. He thinks about the game, he works at the game, and he rarely makes the same mistake twice.
“And when we started seeing that in OTAs, it was like, ‘This kid has a chance to be something special.’ And he’s pretty much proven us right.”
Do you think it’s helped you that your playing career finished fairly recently? [Jackson was a defensive back for the Houston/Tennesse Oilers/Titans from 1991-1999.]
Jackson: “Ah, I don’t know … no. No. You hear guys that played before me say the same thing about guys from my generation when we came in, and we say the same thing about the younger guys: ‘These guys are different.’ I mean, they’re totally different from what we were.
“The amount of money that they make is way more than the amount of money we got. The amount of publicity, the amount of access that they have, the amount of amenities … everything increases exponentially, it seems like, every ten years.
“The only thing is having seen the guys before me and how they related to me, that’s how I try to relate to these guys. I try to pass the same things on to them.”
What kind of things would that include?
Jackson: “The game hasn’t changed. The toughest guy is gonna win. Not the most athletic, not the best coached. The toughest guy. Once you step out on the field, I can’t help you. There’s only eleven guys out there on each side, and I can’t help you. You have to work hard, you have to do the things you have to do.
“It’s a comfort factor for the guys, knowing that whenever we suggest something, it’s probably because we got beat doing it the way he’s trying to do it. ‘I’ve given up a touchdown trying that technique, I’m telling you it won’t work. If you wanna try it, go ahead and try it.’ And they soon see, and then it’s, ‘Okay, Coach, what SHOULD I do?’
“That’s probably the biggest thing that you can take from playing, is just saying I’ve been there, tried it, didn’t succeed, tried it, did succeed.”
All right. Let’s talk a little about the specific guys you’ve got in your position group. You’ve got LaRon Landry starting at free safety, and people email me all the time asking why he’s not up at strong safety. What’s the thinking behind that?
Jackson: “That’s a good question, and I hear it all the time too. With the style of defense that we play, the strong safety is more a box type player. He’s gonna cover tight ends, and he has to be able to attack fullbacks and take the physical rigors of being down there. He’s like a small linebacker.
“LaRon’s biggest assets are his speed and his range. With the way we play our free safety, he has to be a guy that can run from sideline to sideline to protect the corners. If anybody breaks free, the free safety has to be the one to run that guy down. And that’s what he does better than anybody we have on this team.
“As far as taking on fullbacks and just being the guy to get in there and get dirty and grimy and do all the dirty work, that’s not LaRon. It’s a waste of his particular talents to put him down in there. Nothing against the position, but he’s better for our defense with his physical skills back there being the traffic cop and being the savior, the angel for anyone who gets into trouble.”
And backing him up is Kareem Moore. What do you see from him heading into his second year?
Jackson: “He has the same attributes as LaRon. They’re guys who can go sideline to sideline, and he’s probably got the best ball skills of everybody in the defensive backfield besides DeAngelo [Hall].
, yeah. You throw a ball, he’ll just pluck it out of the air. And the thing about him is, he was hurt when we got him. He didn’t have any OTAs, didn’t even practice til the middle of training camp. So I think people’ll be surprised with what they see out of Kareem this year now that he’s had a full offseason AND got some experience in games last year. He looks a million times better than he did last year — we’ve got a pretty good group.”
Up at strong safety, Chris Horton impressed last year, while Reed Doughty saw his season cut short by an injury. Where do those two guys stand heading into OTAs and training camp?
Jackson: “They pretty much define it themselves, because none of them feel comfortable. They’ll tell each other, ‘You know what? If you slip up, I’m gonna take your job.’ And that’s what everybody works for: I’m gonna make you better, you’re gonna make me better, and we’re gonna BE better. We’ve got starter 1, and starter 1A, because both of them are capable of getting us through an NFL season.”
And you’ve also got an undrafted rookie in the mix, Lendy Holmes. What can you tell me about him?
Jackson: “He’s very promising. Athletic guy. You wanna talk about ball skills, he’s got excellent ball skills, and he’s smart. It’s gonna be good to see what he can do once we get the pads on, because everybody looks good in shorts. It’s a talent show.
“But you wanna see the toughness and how a guy’s gonna react when it’s a hundred degrees outside and you’ve got guys who are bigger than you and faster than you that wanna knock you down, AND you’ve gotta remember your plays, AND you’ve gotta get out of there in one piece.”
That’s the trick, I guess. Did you see Holmes on Prime U, Deion’s player training reality show?
Jackson: “I heard about it. Actually, one of my old guys, Omar Stoutmire, is one of the guys that was doing some of the training down there.”
Did he talk to you at all about signing Holmes?
Jackson: “No, no. I didn’t get the chance to talk to Omar about him right after the draft, although I have talked to him since then and he has very good things to say.”
Does that kind of training help?
Jackson: “Absolutely. Because if you don’t get it then, when are you gonna get it? It’s too late. By the time you’re actually in a situation, it’s too late, because you weren’t prepared for it. I think it’s excellent. I think all potential NFL players and all young guys should try to go through that kind of thing just to get acclimated to what they’re about to get into.”
All right. Just a couple more questions. A lot of the talk about the Albert Haynesworth signing has focused on the sort of ripple effect he’s expected to have on the defense. How do you see that helping your guys in particular?
Jackson: “I’m not a very good fortune teller. I hope it does wonders. But the guys in the back end are trained that if everyone else on the whole defense pulls their hamstrings on the exact same play, and you’re the only one out there against eleven, you’ve gotta make the play. And that’s their mentality. That’s the swagger we coach with, that’s the swagger they go on the field with.
“We welcome him, and he’s gonna help us some shape, form, or fashion, but when these guys get one on one, they’ve gotta win.”
What about off the field? Do you do anything that might come as a surprise to people?
Jackson: “I paint. I’m into photography, I play guitar…”
A real renaissance man, then?
Jackson: “Hah. I guess you could say that. I’m more of a thinker than a fighter or anything like that.”
So what do you paint?
Jackson: “I paint abstracts. I believe that life is your canvas, and each day you put another stroke on there. You make a mistake, you can blend it in with another color. You won’t get rid of it, but it can definitely change your whole picture.”
Is that something you apply to your coaching?
Jackson: “Absolutely. Nobody makes a mistake on purpose, but you’ve gotta learn when you do. Guys are out there trying to do the right thing. They make a mistake, you’ve gotta try to get it fixed. If a guy keeps doing it, he’s saying, ‘Hey, Coach, I’m either not good enough, or I don’t want to play here.’ And then you find somebody else.”
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