Coming off a lackluster four-interception performance this past Sunday, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman briefly spoke with the media Wednesday afternoon after practice about what went wrong in London.
“It was a game that we feel like we went out and could have won,” he said. “Even at the end we had a chance, but stuff early on happened and got us in a bit of a deficit. Our defense stepped up and played a great fourth quarter [and] gave us the ball back. When we finally got things rolling it was a little late.”
What ultimately derailed the Bucs as they were rolling toward potential victory was the fourth and final interception of Freeman’s erratic day throwing the football. It was the third time this season he has had a multi-pick game after having only one last year. That came on Week 9 in Atlanta when he threw two of his six giveaways of the season.
With the team on its bye week, Freeman’s touchdown-to-interception ratio stands at 7-10. That puts him on pace to throw 16 scores to almost 23 picks – drastically different from last year’s breakout 25-6 mark.
In speaking with Freeman, head coach Raheem Morris and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, the Bucs feel they have identified two areas that need to be addressed heading into the season’s second half – Freeman throwing off his back foot and an inability to scramble for yardage or keep plays alive.
Rather than stepping up in the pocket as it forms around him, Freeman has at times been backpedaling out and then not stepping into throws. That’s a tendency that can quickly form into a habit during games in the face of adversity, Van Pelt said.
“That’s human nature. That’s just the body protecting itself. When you get rattled early as a quarterback sometimes your feet get a little bit off. So it is just constantly reminding him during the course of the game to plant that back foot. But yes, it has shown up a few times.”
In the instances Freeman has decided to escape the pocket this season, he has begun to tuck the ball and run less frequently and is finding less open space to maneuver. Freeman’s averaging four rushes per game (28 total) for 3.9 yards an attempt (108 total). The 6-foot-6, 248-pound quarterback ran slightly more last season, averaging 4.25 attempts per game and averaging 5.4 yards a carry. But in the last three games combined, Freeman has recorded only five rushing attempts for five yards. He did not venture across the line of scrimmage at all last Sunday against Chicago.
“They’re running some stunts and different things underneath that really take away the rush lanes for the quarterback,” Freeman said. “Also they’ve spied me a little bit and it’s by design and that’s how the league is. You do something successfully and the defense is going to start to do stuff to take it away.”
“I’m not the fastest guy in the world,” he continued. “If I have an open running lane then I’m going to run the ball. I’ve not had a chance to get out. The one time I tried to scramble versus the Bears I got run down by an end and ended up having to throw it away. It’s a part that if it’s there to do and we can do something with it, then I am going to do it. But the lanes just haven’t been there.”
Through seven weeks, the combination of both technical aspects mixed in with Freeman’s aggressive/forced decision-making has contributed to a higher interception total.
“Last year he simply did a better job of going through his progressions throughout the whole process,” Morris said when asked about whether Freeman has been overaggressive. “Right now he’s probably playing his number in fantasy football because he’s trying to throw touchdowns. Sometimes it’s okay to throw to check-downs; sometimes it’s okay to go through your progressions. Right now he has a little too much confidence in what he’s doing with his arm and forcing some things in there.
“We’re in a game and we threw four interceptions. If we don’t throw some of those interceptions we’ve got a chance to win it. He’s not one of those guys that’s more concerned about himself than winning.”
While the turnovers through the air continue to be detrimental to Tampa Bay’s overall success this season, Van Pelt said he feels it’s an attribute to have a quarterback that’s confident he can make any number of throws. To limit the mistakes in the second half, it’s going to be a matter of Freeman picking his spots more carefully.
“If we don’t turn the ball over we are going to put ourselves in great position to win,” Van Pelt said. “He has to really get back into that mindset. The thing that makes him great, his competitiveness, is the fact that he thinks he can make all those throws, which is why you love him. Ultimately his goal is to not turn the ball over and put us in position to win games at the end. We will get back on track there.”
Freeman acknowledged that tackling the interception concerns is high on his priority list during the bye week as Tampa Bay rests up and prepares for the New Orleans Saints.
“I’m trying to strike a dagger in the defense and more often than not this year it has kind of backfired,” he said. “We are going to go back and self-scout the entire season. Go back and look at the interceptions. We were watching them all today – watching and seeing what’s happened. Ultimately you look at it [and] we’ve turned the ball over in the red zone. That’s something that’s really uncharacteristic of our offense and uncharacteristic of me. If we can do that (not turn ball over in red zone) you are looking at a team that is 5-2 if not 6-1 right now.”
But the Bucs aren’t 6-1 or 5-2. They’re 4-3 and seeking consistency from week to week as a battered roster licks its wounds. From Morris’ optimistic perspective, though, Tampa Bay is still above .500 and only one game behind the NFC South-leading Saints.
“When you talk about Josh Freeman, you’ve got to talk about how many wins you have and how many losses you have,” Morris said. “Right now Josh Freeman is a four-win quarterback and we just talked about that being third-best in the National Football League.
“Not playing your best football in the first half and coming out of this thing 4-3, you feel really good about that as a coach. It's kind of a sigh of relief. Now I know we don't feel good about the last loss because we had a chance to win it and it could be even better. We could talking even more stuff right now but we're not. We are what we are and we can't wait to attack the next half of this football season.”
– Victoria Horchak and Scott Reynolds contributed to this report