HOUSTON -- It's rare that a hard hit stops J.J. Watt in his tracks, but when defensive back Kareem Jackson leveled Denver running back Phillip Lindsay in the third quarter of Sunday's 19-17 win, the Houston Texans defensive end took notice.
"He is killing it," Watt said of Jackson. "That hit [on Sunday] was one of the hardest hits I have seen on a football field. It was clean. It was a great hit.
"He has been doing that all year. He has been getting interceptions, making big hits, and making tackles. And he is obviously moving around. For him to be able to do that, to have that versatility, to be willing to do that in his ninth year, it has been great and been a big help to our team."
Texans coach Bill O'Brien is usually hesitant to evaluate players immediately after games, reserving comment until he's watched the film. But on Sunday night in Denver, he knew Jackson had an excellent game.
"It was noticeable how well he played tonight," O'Brien said. "... He's done a really good job for us this year [and] he's a very important piece of what we are doing on defense."
Against the Broncos, Jackson broke up two passes, and his tackling ability was on full display on the punishing hit on Lindsay that forced an incompletion.
It was the latest in a string of impressive performances by the 30-year-old defensive back, who has taken a big step forward this season at a new position. During the offseason, the Texans decided to move the 2010 first-round pick from cornerback -- the position he played in his first eight seasons -- to safety.
And he has thrived.
"It's always fun to be able to help the team however I can and being in different spots and seeing different things out there and getting the chance to be around the ball a little bit more," Jackson said.
He finished last season with a 66.1 grade, according to Pro Football Focus, ranking him 65th among 107 cornerbacks who played at least 400 snaps. Through nine games this season he has a PFF rating of 90.1, ranking him second among cornerbacks and fourth among all defensive backs.
"This is the best I've seen him play since I've been here," said secondary coach Anthony Midget, who is in his fifth season in Houston.
'Best decision for the team'
The call from O'Brien came during the spring. He wanted to talk to Jackson about the possibility of moving to safety.
"It would be the best decision for the team," O'Brien told him.
Jackson understood. Starting safety Andre Hal had been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma and would miss at least the start of the season. The Texans had signed safety Tyrann Mathieu to a one-year deal and drafted Justin Reid in the third round, but they were thin at safety and had a surplus at cornerback after signing Aaron Colvin. They were also expecting big contributions from Johnathan Joseph and 2015 first-round pick Kevin Johnson.
"It was kind of hard to foreshadow," Joseph said of moving Jackson, "but looking back on it now, they hit it right on."
O'Brien pointed to Jackson's intelligence and his "good ball skills," as reasons for the switch, noting, "he can play zone coverage, man coverage [and] he's a very good tackler," but the Texans couldn't have predicted how often they'd rely on his versatility this season.
"If I asked him to rush the passer, he would rush the passer and would probably get a sack or two." Texans coordinator Romeo Crennel on versatile DB Kareem Jackson
Despite the move to safety, Jackson has had to primarily play cornerback again because of injuries at the position. Johnson has been on injured reserve since leaving the season opener with a concussion. Colvin played in four games before injuring his ankle, although he hopes to be back soon after the bye week. Kayvon Webster, Shareece Wright and Joseph have also missed time.
In nine games, Jackson has played 398 snaps at corner -- moving around the field quite a bit -- and 148 snaps at free safety.
"He was able to move [to safety], and he showed that he can play there and help the team," defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. "So, wherever we need him -- I mean, if I asked him to rush the passer, he would rush the passer and would probably get a sack or two.
"Kareem [Jackson] knows the defense, Kareem studies the opponent and knows what their strengths and weaknesses are and knows how to put himself in position to possibly make plays ... So, all of the success he's had is because of the type of player he is and how he studies and prepares during the week."
Attention to detail
Midget said sometimes he doesn't even know on Monday where Jackson will be playing, praising the veteran for being prepared for both positions in the game plan, something that requires a lot of studying and attention to detail.
"When you're that versatile, it really doesn't matter what your role is, or where you're playing," Joseph said. "You just get the playbook and you just kind of learn exactly what you've got to do and go from there."
Mathieu, who also plays several positions on defense, said assignments can change as the week goes on -- and during a game.
"With [Jackson], for instance, one week he could practice safety the entire week and then Friday we realize, 'Oh, we need him at corner,'" he said. "And now he has to prepare again at cornerback."
Added Joseph: "I think it's a little tough sometimes, because it's so much responsibility on his plate ... If a guy goes down, now he has to switch his position again. He's normally the first guy that's asked to switch positions. To get thrown into a game and have to switch positions during the game and be successful -- that's hard."
Joseph said the biggest adjustment from corner to safety is "learning the responsibilities," because the safety is responsible for giving the correct call to the cornerbacks and linebackers.
"A lot of times corner you're just on an island," Crennel said. "You're one-on-one with you and the receiver that you're going against. But in safety, you have to know the whole defense, communicate the whole defense and you have more range in the deep part of the field."
Mathieu said the switch -- either midgame or midweek -- is "pretty challenging," because it can be hard to get into a rhythm.
"[At cornerback], you've got to feel out the guys you're playing against and at safety, you kind of have to have this big-picture mindset of what could possibly go wrong, and how can I fix it?" he said.
Added Joseph: "A lot of guys fight with that thing because they never want to move. They all want to be a ... lockdown corner. At safety, he's able to get guys lined up, communicate, be even more of a leader back there than at corner. He's able to fit in the run game, make tackles, make splash hits and make plays all over the field."
Always around the ball
This season, Jackson has two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. His second interception was came with 35 seconds left against the Buffalo Bills, sealing the Week 6 victory.
Reid hasn't been around Jackson long, but he has quickly noticed how often the veteran seems to be around the ball.
"You look at Kareem on tape, and this guy just really has a knack for being around the ball," Reid said. "Even when we played Jacksonville, he was playing [cornerback] and the ball was fumbled on the other side of the field. And who gets it? Kareem does. He just really has an instinct for finding where the ball is and making plays."
The Texans' secondary still has improvements to make -- the unit is allowing an average of 243 passing yards per game, 15th in the NFL, but there's no doubt the team would be in trouble if it weren't for the versatile Jackson.
"I knew that Kareem has been a solid player since we've been here," Midget said. "But the thing that surprised me was how quickly he made the transition to safety from Day 1. [Against the Patriots], the couple of turnovers he forced and the physical presence he brought to the whole group.
"I didn't expect it to happen that quickly. But that's a testament to the work he's put in and the type of pro he is."