Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson made a spectacular play in practice on Tuesday morning at the Methodist Training Center.
Quarterback Matt Schaub dropped back to pass and heaved a ball to the end zone. Jackson leapt high in the air to tip the ball with his right hand, then corralled it for a one-handed interception.
It was just one play, but it was representative of the progress that the much-maligned Jackson has made entering his third NFL season.
"This time last year, he wouldn't have pulled the trigger to make that play," Texans defensive backs coach Vance Joseph said. "But now he's feeling confident enough where he knows what he's looking at, he's experienced enough to go, 'You know something, I see it; I'm going to go get it.' That's encouraging for me to see."
Jackson has been vilified by Texans fans and media for the last two years, perhaps more than any other player. A first-round draft pick out of Alabama in 2010, he was on the wrong end of numerous big plays as a rookie, becoming the poster child for a defense that ranked 32nd against the pass.
In his second season, Jackson started 13 games as the Texans improved to third against the pass under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. He improved his technique under Phillips and Joseph. He gave up far fewer big plays.
That improvement has carried over into the offseason.
"He's a much better player right now," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said on Tuesday."He's much more comfortable in Wade's system, confident. I think Kareem's really improved as a player, and it's all about confidence with him, too."
The biggest remaining area of improvement for Jackson is turning his head around to make plays on the ball. He had just six passes defensed last season, one less than Texans linebacker Connor Barwin. He had one interception.
In the Texans' preseason opener at Carolina on Saturday, Jackson ended the Panthers' first series by batting down a pass from Cam Newton to Brandon LaFell on third-and-short. The fact Joseph was not satisfied with the result – he expected Jackson to make an interception – is another indication of how far Jackson has come.
"He's improved so much from the spring to the fall," Joseph said. "His technique is really, really good. His confidence is at an all-time high. He's making plays on the ball. His next level is to make the big plays. He was solid last year – good player, solid – but now he has to make more big plays for us. That play he made today was a great play. The one he didn't make Saturday, we can't do. We've got to make those plays."
Pro Bowl cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who has been a mentor of sorts to Jackson since signing with the Texans in 2011, said Jackson has made "tremendous strides" this offseason.
"The first time we had a chance to come out here in OTAs back in the spring, his first period, he went out there, stayed square in his backpedal," Joseph said. "Things they were preaching to him all year long, and he came right out there the first day and just did it the correct way. Everybody in the meeting room, when we saw it, we kind of gave him a round of applause, because that shows your progression or shows you're maturing on and off the field to take things that were taught to you last year and bring it right back in the spring from the time-off period that we had.
"Coming into training camp, they were talking about 'Make more big plays,' and today, he comes up with a one-handed interception. So it's just things like that that you want to see him take that next step in and have those progressions."
Jackson, 24, said he tries to take what he has learned from Johnathan Joseph, Vance Joseph and film study and transfer it to the field. So far, it has paid noticeable dividends.
"I'm a lot closer in making plays and breaking on the ball a lot better," he said. "I'm seeing things out there, recognizing formations, recognizing routes, recognizing receiver stems and stuff. Once I'm able to recognize those things, I'm able to get a jump on the ball."
Vance Joseph said that improvement is part of the natural progression of a cornerback entering his third season in the NFL.
"As a rookie, if he wasn't ready to play, he shouldn't have played, probably," Joseph said. "But he was forced to play. He took some lumps, but he's been so resilient. That's why he's my favorite guy, because he's tough. He's mentally tough. Most guys would've folded and went away, but he kept battling, he kept getting better. He heard the critics, but he kept working."
Said Jackson: "Everybody in their life has been through some adversity at some point. If it don't kill you, it'll make you stronger. I don't think anything out here'll kill me, so for me to kind of fight through that adversity, now, to look back on it, it definitely made me a stronger man and a stronger player."