In his first two seasons, Kareem Jackson was everyone's favorite target.
Media. Fans. Opposing quarterbacks. All threw whatever they could at Jackson, jumping at any chance to criticize or expose the supposed weak link of the Texans' defense.
Times are changing.
Now in his third season, Jackson is tied for the AFC lead with three interceptions, equaling his previous career total. The 2010 first-round draft pick out of Alabama has six passes defensed, as many as he had all of last season and one more than Texans Pro Bowl cornerback Johnathan Joseph through seven games.
"Kareem Jackson has played outstanding," Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said on Monday. "He's in the top of the league in interceptions. His man doesn't catch the ball very often. The things that we expect from J-Joe (Joseph), he's done the same thing on the other side. We know he's going to be targeted a little bit more, though they've kind of gone away from that. They keep throwing it over there, and he keeps making plays."
Jackson had the best game of his career in Week 4 against the Tennessee Titans. He was named the Texans' defensive player of the game after returning an interception 63 yards for a touchdown and batting down two other passes in a 38-14 victory. Coaches and teammates said it was an extension of how he had played in the previous few weeks, a level he has now maintained through Week 7.
"I would probably say he's playing on the highest level he's probably played since he's been here," Joseph said. "He's made steps, and he's one of those guys you can count on each and every week to show up. It's the same thing I've been saying since I've been here, that I had seen in him last year when I first got here."
Jackson struggled mightily as a rookie in 2010. He was repeatedly beaten on long touchdown passes, becoming the poster child for a passing defense that ranked last in the league as the Texans went 6-10. Houston allowed 267.5 passing yards game, seventh-worst in NFL history.
A lot changed for Jackson in 2011. The Texans hired a new defensive coordinator in Phillips and a new defensive backs coach in Vance Joseph. They signed a lockdown veteran corner from whom Jackson could learn in Johnathan Joseph. Jackson started 13 games on a passing defense that ranked third in the NFL, and he gave up far fewer big plays while rotating with veteran Jason Allen. Still, many outside the organization lamented Jackson's play, calling him a potential chink in the defense's armor.
Allen signed with the Cincinnati Bengals this offseason, begging the question of who would replace him in rotation with Jackson. The answer, it turns out, was no one. Jackson has played 95 percent of the Texans' defensive snaps this season, all but 22 of a possible 439. He has made more plays on the ball than ever, and the Texans rank fifth in passing defense (200.0 yards/game).
"I think he's really improved technique-wise," Phillips said. "Maturity-wise, as a person, I think he's really come along well. A big part of it is him. Anytime you go through really what he went through with all the negatives about how you play and you can't play and you're a number one pick and you're a bust or whatever people were calling him, that's tough mentally. And a lot of players don't come back from that. But he's been strong enough mentally. I think Vance and (assistant defensive backs coach) Perry (Carter) have done a great job with him... The guy's a really quick athlete that's a very tough player, one of our tougher guys, especially for a cornerback, and he's learned to utilize his talents. I can't say enough good things about him."
Texans coach Gary Kubiak said Jackson's improvement is especially impressive because of the avalanche of criticism he endured in his first two seasons.
"Guys make it in this league because they're pretty tough mentally and what they're made of," Kubiak said. "What he went through and the growing pains that he went through to withstand that, now he gets a new coach to come in and he really gets his confidence. Kareem is playing so well right now. The ball used to come his way all day long; it's going to both sides of the field now. That's how well Kareem is playing, and to just watch his confidence on the field, you're happy for guys like that. That's the guys that end up playing 10-12 years and being really good players, when they can withstand some hardships early in your career when you're young and battle through. It makes you better."
If Jackson keeps it up, it's entirely possible that the Texans will have not just one but two Pro Bowl cornerbacks on their roster.