As much as last year's 23-20 Week 15 defeat to Detroit stung last December, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman said his focus heading into Sunday afternoon's opener is solely on the 2011 Lions - not the team that came to Raymond James Stadium in 2010.
Yes, last year's overtime loss dropped Tampa Bay to 8-6 at the time. And yes, the defeat ultimately led to the Bucs being shut out of the postseason after eventually winning out to finish 10-6. But Freeman's a here-and-now kind of guy and said as much Tuesday afternoon prior to practice.
"[It's] a different year. You can’t really dwell on last year. We just know who they are this year and what kind of team they have."
Considering backup QB Drew Stanton was under center that December afternoon in place of injured starter Matthew Stafford and the Lions are coming into Tampa Bay confident off a much-hyped 4-0 preseason, washing their hands of last year's game probably isn't a bad idea.
"They have a really good team and we have our work cut out for us," Freeman said. "We’re going to have to play this game extremely hard and execute if want to have a chance to come out on top."
Stafford has been plagued by injuries in his brief career but is the primary reason why the Lions are garnering so much positive attention around the league. The 6-foot-2, 232-pound quarterback out of Georgia lit it up this preseason, finishing with a 154.7 QB rating after completing 25 of 33 passes for 395 yards and five touchdowns.
Aside from just being young quarterbacks with tremendous upsides as they continue growing into NFL starters, Freeman and Stafford will forever be linked and compared by many because of the 2009 NFL Draft. Detroit made Stafford the No.1 overall selection that year and Freeman was picked up not long after by Tampa Bay at No. 17. Also taken above Freeman in that draft was Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets, at No. 5.
Freeman admitted he may have caught himself tracking his progress side-by-side with Stafford and Sanchez as a rookie from time to time. Now, he said, the emphasis is more on keeping pace with the quarterbacks at the top of their games that specific season, not just the ones in his own draft class.
"Maybe in the rookie year you look to see how Stafford did and how Sanchez did, the two guys in your class, but now you just look around the league and see who the top performers are and try to measure yourself off them."
As for the head-to-head battle, Freeman was nonchalant about how much it should be looked into and said he's more concerned about the competition with reigning NFL Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh and the Lions defense.
"It's interesting because a lot of people have been asking me about that," Freeman said about the matchup with Stafford. "I found playing against any good quarterback that you kind of have to take that whole quarterback vs. quarterback mentality out of your mind because you're playing against a defense. He has to contend with [DT] Gerald McCoy and I have to contend with [DT] Ndamukong Suh. That's who I have to worry about ... worry about their secondary and their defense. If I get caught up in what Matthew Stafford is doing it will take a little bit away from what I need to be doing game plan-wise."
Of course, at 6-foot-4, 307-pounds, Suh is a large part of that game planning.
"He's a good player," Freeman said. "Their whole front four. Their D-line is all effort guys and very talented. Going into this game, we know we're going to have to be on it - the offensive line [and] me with protection calls and everything else so we can give ourselves a chance to make plays."
Rounding out the Lions' defensive front Freeman was speaking of are LE Cliff Avril, DT Corey Williams and RE Kyle Vanden Bosch.
Away from the Detroit-centric discussion, the question was asked to Freeman if he believes this year's team is poised to improve on its ranking of 20th in terms of scoring. Tampa Bay scored 341 total points in 2010, good for an average of 21.3 per game. Of the 341 total, 313 came courtesy of the offense after subtracting the Bucs' three defensive touchdowns and one kick return for a score. That gives the offense a true average of 19.6 points per game of responsibility.
Loaded with young and inexperienced players, the third-year quarterback said the offense is more focused on controlling the ball and its tempo right now rather than setting stat sheets afire with blazing numbers.
"As everybody progresses and everybody grows, we'll become more comfortable with each other in different situations and be able to start taking more shots. [We'll] be able to take advantage of the nuances of defenses because we've played together [longer]."
Freeman added that even while players become more in sync after time, Tampa Bay's balanced offensive scheme is not exactly conducive to the type of eye-popping statistical production that leads to consistent 40-plus point games.
"The team is not an extremely explosive, throw-the-ball-down-the-field, light-up-the-scoreboard type of team," he said. "We're more of a just stay-in-the-game type. We just compete. We go out and we run our offense. We're not going to go out and throw the ball 50 times a game. We might pass more or run more depending on the game plan and who we're playing, but as a young offense, we can't go out and be world beaters right off the bat. That's kind of our mentality. We want to play well, but at the same time, we want to play smart and play ball security. I think that is one of the reasons why we weren't extremely high in scoring offense, but we found a way to move the ball down the field and found a way to win games. And that's what it's all about."
Before wrapping up the media session, Freeman commented on the passing of former Buccaneers great Lee Roy Selmon, who passed away Sunday after suffering a stroke two days prior.
"I never got a chance to see Lee Roy [play], but he was the first Buccaneer," he said, referring to the fact that Selmon was Tampa Bay's first-ever draft pick during the team's inaugural 1976 NFL Draft. Freeman said it was an honor having the opportunity to speak with Selmon and witness how much of an impact he had on the community.
"He was a great friend and mentor to a lot of guys on our team. He will be missed."