Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie quarterback Josh Freeman came close to making his debut last Sunday, but the Bucs coaching staff resisted the temptation to play their first-round pick.
The Bucs lost to the Eagles last week, 33-14. With the game out of hand, Bucs head coach Raheem Morris and offensive coordinator Greg Olson thought about pulling second-year QB Josh Johnson in an effort to get Freeman some valuable playing time.
But Philadelphia's relentless defensive attack, which featured a variety of blitz packages, wasn't something Tampa Bay's staff thought Freeman should see in his first regular season action in the NFL.
"There was thought last week of getting Freeman in at the end of the game," said Olson. "But our feeling as a staff was that we weren't sure this was the defense we wanted to have this kid start off against right now. We'll allow him to get some more practice time this week and let him develop a little further."
The coaching staff believes Freeman has come a long way since the regular season started. That would be a good thing seeing as Freeman completed just 22-of-49 (44.9 percent) of his passes for 238 yards while tossing one touchdown and three interceptions in preseason. He also rushed eight times for 75 yards and a 28-yard touchdown.
For now, the 0-5 Bucs, who have the 26th-ranked offense in the NFL, are sticking with Bucs second-year QB Josh Johnson.
Johnson has completed 43-of-82 (52.4 percent) of his passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns and four interceptions, but showed significant improvement from his debut against Washington to his second NFL start vs. Philadelphia last week.
"Josh Freeman's development is really going well," said Morris. "Josh Johnson, however, has been here for a year. He's been through the early meetings and class for a year. He's been with Coach Olson for a year and he's been calling protections and been on the same page with the center. He's been through all that. Freeman is going through that process right now, so I wouldn't say he's necessarily having a problem from the neck up.
"Freeman's opportunity will come if Josh Johnson fails. I don't like to talk about Josh Johnson failing because right now he's our quarterback."
Freeman, 21, agreed with his coaching staff's assessment in terms of the progress he's made since he landed in Tampa Bay as the 17th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.
"I've definitely made strides, both physically and mentally," said Freeman. "I've spent a lot of time with Coach Olson and I've been hitting the books hard."
One of the reasons why the Bucs have hesitated to play Freeman is because of his lack of familiarity with line calls at the NFL level. Johnson had similar issues as a rookie, and the Bucs see Freeman making similar progress in that particular area.
In fact, the Bucs believe Johnson's play and upside is what's keeping Freeman on the sideline more than anything else at this point.
"He could play right now," Olson said of Freeman. "He's sharing reps with Josh Johnson in practice right now. Last week, with the amount of blitzes Philadelphia threw at Josh Johnson I think it would have been asking a lot of Josh Freeman to go in and handle all of the protection calls that Josh Johnson did. Looking back on it, we were watching film on Monday and he made all the calls and said, ‘This would have been a Ringo, this would have been a Lucky, this would have been a Rita call here.' I think it's just a matter of him getting comfortable with that.
"It's nice to haveJeff Faine back. That helps out both young quarterbacks. Even a year ago, there was a big difference when Jeff Garcia was in and Brian Griese was in. Jeff felt much more comfortable with Jeff Faine making the balls. He had never done that in his career and wasn't real interested in that. It wasn't an issue, but somewhat it is. The quarterback has to get guys in the right places. We ask these guys to do that, and that's a big part of the quarterback development. Especially nowadays with all the zone blitzes, it's important that the quarterbacks understand the protection part of it."
Regardless of how he plays, if the Bucs remain winless heading into their bye week there's a chance Freeman will be inserted into the starting lineup.
"If he had to play, yeah, [Freeman] would play," said Olson. "He's our number two quarterback right now. It's just a matter of him getting the reps. We have a bye week coming up and we have a short week next week with us leaving for London on Friday. He's got a couple of weeks and then a bye week where he'll be able to practice even more."
Freeman said he's prepared to play if and when the Bucs need him this season.
"Every week I prepare as if I'm the starter," said Freeman. "You never know when your number will be called, but whenever mine is called I'll be ready."
JACKSON BACK TO NORMAL AT SAFETY
Free safety Tanard Jackson returned to the field last Sunday at Philadelphia. Jackson had to miss the first four games of the season with suspension due to violating the NFL's policy on substance abuse.
The third-year veteran Jackson was credited with four tackles against the Eagles. Jackson said he was inserted back into the lineup with the same amount of playing time that he played in the previous years.
"We still rotated the safeties like we did the past two years," Jackson said. "I played a great amount, basically the whole game. We are looking to play three safeties. We are looking to keep Sabby [Piscitelli], Will [Allen], and myself on the field. We want to keep that rotation going and keep us all fresh."
For the first time in the NFL, Jackson played a few snaps at cornerback against the Eagles. At Syracuse, Jackson was a full-time cornerback. After getting drafted by Tampa Bay in the fourth round of the 2007 NFL Draft, Jackson was moved to safety. Last season, he had over 100 tackles for the first time in his career, and was the Buccaneers starting free safety for every game the past two seasons.
In the 2009 offseason the Bucs moved Jackson to playing some nickel cornerback. When playing there, Jackson lines up over the slot receiver. Jackson has paid attention to veteran Ronde Barber, who has had a lot of success in his NFL career lining up over the slot receiver. Jackson saw his first reps in the NFL there last Sunday against Philadelphia. On one particular play when Jackson was playing cornerback there was a 40-yard touchdown pass to Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin, who beat Barber and Allen for the score.
"I was at the nickel position on that play," said Jackson. "I played this position a lot in the preseason. I've always been the backup to Ronde, but Ronde plays that spot and has been for years. You rarely see anybody else at that position. It is a little bit (like being back at Syracuse) covering the slot receiver. I played it a lot there."
ASKEW SUSTAINED INJURY IN CAR ACCIDENT
The 0-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers took the practice field at One Buccaneer Place Thursday to continue preparing for their next opponent — the 1-3 Carolina Panthers.
Bucs fullback B.J. Askew (back/neck) and tight end Jerramy Stevens (quad) were held out of practice for the second straight day with their injuries. Morris said Askew suffered his injuries in a car accident.
"B.J. Askew the other morning had a fender-bender," said Morris. "He had an accident. We are going to monitor his status day-by-day to see what is going on with B.J.
If Askew can't play taking his place at fullback would be veteran running back Earnest Graham.
"Well you got Earnest Graham, who is the lead dog guy when B.J. is not going to be in attendance," said Morris. "Earnest Graham we pick on him a lot. We say his head is so big he can't get into a three-point stance, but Earnest is so mister versatile. He can catch the ball out of the backfield, he can be a third-down back, he can be a fullback, he can be a tailback, the versatility of Earnest Graham, and what he does for us on special teams. He's just a special young player."
Wide receiver Antonio Bryant (knee) was limited again despite suggesting Wednesday that he would have his knee drained in an effort to practice more this week. Bryant is expected to play vs. the Panthers.
Bucs tackle Donald Penn (ankle), defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson (knee), center Jeff Faine (triceps), Graham (hamstring), defensive end Kyle Moore (knee) and running back Clifton Smith (ankle) were all fully involved practicing today.
"Kyle Moore is working," said Morris. "I've certainly seen a lot more of him in practice this week. He's been impressive. He had another impressive practice. We'll get to the game and see who is going to be the top guys in the 45, and see if he can get out there. I don't know yet. I make those decisions on game day. Most of them."
The Carolina Panthers had the following players with full participating: running back Jonathan Stewart (achilles), linebacker James Anderson (concussion), linebacker Jon Beason (knee), linebacker Na'il Diggs (rib), defensive tackle Nick Hayden (toe), and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (shoulder). Wide receiver Steve Smith (knee) had limited participation, and tight end Dante Rosario (ankle) did not participate.