With a flourish, cornerback Kareem Jackson pranced into the end zone on a 63-yard interception return for a touchdown. It was a proverbial exclamation point on a resounding 38-14 Texans victory over AFC South rival Tennessee. For Jackson, it was the capper on his finest day as a professional.
"Every kid growing up dreams of finishing with a high step into the end zone," Jackson said. "As my first pick six, I had to pull it off."
The defense held the Titans to 167 passing yards and forced two more turnovers, and Jackson finished with a pair of tackles and a pair of passes defensed in addition to his score on the interception. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips liked what he saw from the third-year pro, and has seen continual progress from Jackson since August of 2011.
"We said all along he's playing well, and he is playing well, along with our secondary," Phillips said. "Kareem's been better and better and we can see that."
Head coach Gary Kubiak was especially happy with the performance by Jackson, and was quick to compliment not just today's effort, but the past few games.
"The last three weeks, he's been exceptional," Kubiak said. "His confidence level is very high. K-Jack has just really grown up as a player and a person as well."
Since 2010, no Texans' defender has been more a target of fan and media angst than Jackson. Through it all, Jackson's attitude has been exemplary, according to captain and defensive teammate Brian Cushing.
"He's a fighter," Cushing said. "He's a tough kid who's never complained. He's been through hell. Literally, he's been through hell with all the stuff he has heard over the last few years. And just the way he's responded, I think it's huge. It just proves what kind of kid he is."
Free safety Danieal Manning, who also returned an interception for a touchdown against Tennessee, agreed with Cushing and praised Jackson's ever-positive attitude.
"He's been through a lot, but the guy is resilient and bounced back," Manning said. "His rookie year, then coming in and changing the whole defense, he did well and now he's showing that he can definitely be one of the top corners in this league, and rightfully so."
The interception was Jackson's second of the season, fifth of his career, and the first time he's scored in the regular season. In the postgame locker room speech, head coach Gary Kubiak awarded Jackson a game ball, and Jackson paused ever so briefly to reflect on the journey he's traveled since joining the team as a first-rounder in the 2010 draft.
"Denfinitely, from year one to now it's all about progression as a player," Jackson said. "When you have seen different things for so long, you start to get accustomed. We talk a lot about things that we are going to see in the game. I think it's just being accustomed and comfortable."
Jackson's improvement hasn't just been noticed by his teammates and coaches. Texans chairman and CEO Bob McNair spoke positively about the corner on Sunday as well.
"I'm really pleased for him because he's just doing nothing but getting better," McNair said. "He's bigger and stronger this year. He's seeing that he can get out there and be an outstanding player."
Jackson acknowledged that he's still a work-in-progress, and that "every year" he wants "to progress as a player." He's on his way through four games in 2012.