It took a while, but Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay’s first-round draft pick in 2009, finally showed glimpses of why the team drafted him. On his final pass of a difficult preseason in which he didn’t even complete 50 percent of his passes, Freeman rifled a 23-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Cortez Hankton with eight seconds left before halftime in Friday night’s preseason finale, which the Bucs would lose to the visiting Houston Texans, 27-20.

Freeman finished the preseason with that lone touchdown pass and three interceptions, including two against Houston, to prove that he is not yet ready to enter the mix for Tampa Bay’s starting job.

Bucs head coach Raheem Morris said both of his young quarterbacks, Freeman and Josh Johnson, who threw one touchdown and one pick against the Texans, started off nervous and did a better job running the football than throwing it. Johnson finished the game tied for the rushing lead with 43 yards on five carries (8.6 avg.), while Freeman rushed for 27 yards on three carries (9.0 avg.).

“[Freeman] started out a little nervous,” Morris said. “First time coming out of the gate he was a little nervous. You could see it in some of his throws. He made some nice plays, some nice scrambles. He was moving around a little bit more than you would like to see him move around but he came back in and delivered a touchdown so we are fired up about that.”

Morris liked the way Freeman, who finished the game 7-of-17 (41.1 percent) passing for 85 yards, finished the preseason with a well-executed touchdown pass on a two-minute drive before halftime.

“It was great,” Morris said. “He came out a little shaky. He had to make a couple of great scrambles there, make a couple of good third down conversions to end that thing with a two-minute drive to get us in the end zone. It’s what you want to see. You want to see these guys play better every time you go out there.”
Freeman, who threw an interception on his first pass attempt, admitted that he was out of sorts at the beginning of the game.

“The night started out and I played a little too conscious and was not really letting the game come to me and it wasn’t really working out,” Freeman said. “Then I got the opportunity in that two-minute drive to come out and cut a few loose. I had a lot of my teammates make a lot of big plays for me and we were able to get in the end zone. [Cortez] Hankton ran a great route and made a great catch and was able to get in. It was good to finish out strong.
“I definitely have learned a lot. I know I am going to continue to learn a lot more. Now I just have to be supportive of my teammates and keep working and things will continue.”

Johnson, who completed 12-of-21 passes (57.1 percent) for 182 yards, likely played well enough to force the team to keep four quarterbacks for the second-straight year, although Morris did not commit to that after the game, stating that the Bucs’ brass would have to discuss that option as the mandatory roster cut down to 53 happens on Saturday.

The Bucs finished Morris' first preseason as head coach with a 1-3 record and were dangerously close to going 0-4 if not for a failed two-point conversion pass by the Jaguars at Jacksonville in Week 2.

The fourth NFL preseason game typically features sloppy play due to the amount of young and inexperienced players taking part. That was certainly the case on Friday night as the Bucs and Texans combined for three turnovers within the first minute of the game.

On Houston’s second play of the game, Bucs safety Sabby Piscitelli forced a fumble when he hit tight end Anthony Hill at the Tampa Bay 36. Cornerback Ronde Barber recovered the ball for Tampa Bay.

Freeman’s first pass attempt was intercepted by cornerback Brice McCain. The pass was intended for Brian Clark the ball, who tackled McCain and forced a fumble that was recovered by lineman Anthony Alabi at the Houston 26. Two plays later, Clark picked up 18 yards on a Freeman pass down to the Houston 5. But the drive stalled at the 2-yard line after B.J. Askew picked up only three yards on two carries and Freeman threw the ball away on third down. With 11:10 left in the first quarter, Mike Nugent’s 20-yard field goal gave Tampa Bay a 3-0 lead.

Tampa Bay recorded its third turnover of the game when Orlovsky’s pass to Hill was defended by linebacker Bo Ruud and intercepted by cornerback Torrie Cox at the Bucs’ 46-yard line, but Tampa Bay couldn’t pick up a first down and had to punt at the end of the first quarter.

Rex Grossman replaced Orlovsky at quarterback in the second quarter, and completed an 87-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jacoby Jones on his first pass attempt of the game. Jones streaked past free safety Tanard Jackson for the score against Tampa Bay’s Cover 2. With 13:57 left in the second quarter, Houston jumped out in front 7-3.

On third-and-8, cornerback Darrell Hunter was guilty of pass interference, which gave Houston a first down at the Tampa Bay 42. On the next snap, Grossman’s pass in the end zone for Darnell Jenkins was swatted away by safety Steve Cargile. Another Buccaneers penalty on third down gave Houston a first down as a roughing the passer personal foul on defensive end Louis Holmes set up the Texans at the Tampa Bay 14. Three plays later on third-and-7, Grossman threw an 11-yard strike to rookie tight end James Casey, who beat Cargile across the middle for a touchdown. With 6:10 left in the second quarter, the Bucs trailed 14-3.

On Tampa Bay’s first play of its next possession, Freeman’s pass was behind Jason Pociask and was intercepted by Kevin Bentley at the Buccaneers’ 14-yard line. Two runs by Arian Foster and a 6-yard catch by Casey gave Houston a first down at the 2-yard line. The Bucs defense created a great goal line stand and forced the Texans to kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 1. Kris Brown’s 19-yard field goal was good to extend Houston’s lead to 17-3 with 2:22 left.

Freeman shook off a tough start to lead the Bucs on a 10-play, 74-yard scoring drive right before halftime. Running back Clifton Smith picked up two first downs on an 11-yard screen pass, and a 6-yard run on third-and-1 at the Houston 40. A 14-yard pass to Clark moved the ball down to the Texans’ 30. A holding penalty on third-and-6 at the Houston 30 against linebacker Buster Davis gave Tampa Bay a first down at the 25. Three plays later on third-and-8, Freeman threw a strike to receiver Cortez Hankton, who was running a skinny post pattern and hauled in a 23-yard touchdown. With eight seconds left before halftime, Houston’s lead was cut to 17-10.

Josh Johnson started the second half for Tampa Bay, and threw an interception on the first play of the third quarter. Texans safety John Busing stepped in front of Pociask and picked off the pass at the Tampa Bay 28 then returned it 27 yards down to the 1-yard line before getting tackled by Alabi. Running back Andre Hall scored from one yard out on first down to give Houston a 23-10 lead with 14:30 left in the third quarter.

Johnson rebounded on the next Tampa Bay drive, which covered 74 yards on 10 plays. The second-year quarterback went 3-for-4 for 49 yards and had two carries for 14 yards, including a 9-yard run. The big play on the drive was Johnson’s beautiful, 31-yard pass to receiver Pat Carter down the right sidelines to the Houston 30. Cornerback Deltha O’Neal was flagged 15 yards for a horse collar tackle on Carter, which gave the Bucs a first down at the Texans’ 15-yard line. The drive stalled inside the Houston 10 and on fourth-and-goal from the 6, the Bucs had to settle for Nugent’s 24-yard field goal to cut the Texans’ lead to 24-13 with 8:49 left in the third quarter.

Grossman led the Texans on another scoring drive, completing two passes for 35 yards, including a big, 28-yarder across the middle. The drive stalled just outside of the red zone and on fourth-and-3 from the Tampa Bay 27, Brown’s 45-yard field goal was good and Houston’s lead swelled to 27-13 with 4:30 left in the third quarter.

On Tampa Bay’s next drive, Johnson’s pass appeared to be intercepted by defensive tackle Josh Leonard as he was hit from behind by defensive end Connor Barwin. The pass bounced off the butt of guard Marc Dile and into the arms of Leonard. The Bucs challenged the play, saying that the pass hit the ground and instant replay showed that indeed the pass was incomplete. After picking up two first downs, the Bucs had to punt the ball away to the Texans near the end of the third quarter.

The Bucs turned the ball over after a Texans punt at the start of the fourth quarter. Clark called for a fair catch, but bobbled the ball, which was recovered by Busing at the Tampa Bay 36. Houston was unable to make anything happen and had to punt the ball back to the Bucs.

Johnson led Tampa Bay to another scoring drive, this one covering 73 yards in 73 plays and ending with his first touchdown pass of the preseason. Johnson was 4-of-4 for 59 yards, including a 24-yarder down to the Houston 16. Smith also contributed an 11-yard run in a drive that ended with a 14-yard touchdown strike to rookie tight end Ryan Purvis. With 8:06 left in the game, Houston’s lead was cut to 27-20.

Johnson led the Bucs on a long drive down to the Houston 3 at the end of the game, but was sacked on fourth down, which ended Tampa Bay’s chances of tying or winning the game.

On a night when middle linebacker Barrett Ruud played only two plays and didn’t even show up on the stats sheet, his younger brother, Bo, stole the show for Tampa Bay’s defense. Ruud was tied for the team lead in tackles with seven with all of his stops being solo tackles.

Ruud, who was playing strongside linebacker, also broke up two passes against Houston. The first pass break-up, which came against tight end Anthony Hill, was intercepted by cornerback Torrie Cox in the first quarter. Ruud’s second pass deflection came on a critical fourth-and-1 at the Tampa Bay 27 when he swatted down Rex Grossman’s pass to tight end James Casey.

Friday night’s performance may have been enough to have Ruud earn a roster spot as a reserve linebacker and special teams performer.

The Buccaneers had a golden opportunity to tie the game in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter, when quarterback Josh Johnson drove the team from the Tampa Bay 11 down to the Houston 3 before the possession ended with a sack by defensive tackle Frank Okam at the 7-yard line. Johnson started off hot, completing a 10-yard pass to wide receiver Mario Urrutia, followed by a 14-yard toss to tight end Ryan Purvis. Johnson’s third pass was to Urrutia and covered 22 yards, moving the ball past midfield.

After three straight first downs, Johnson scrambled for nine yards, then threw a 14-yard pass to Urrutia down to the Houston 21. After an incompletion, Johnson picked up a first down with his feet, scrambling for 11 yards down to the Houston 10. After Jameel Cook rushed for seven yards to set up second-and-goal from the 3, the drive began to unravel. Two incompletions preceeded a sack by defensive tackle Frank Okam on fourth-and-3 that ended Tampa Bay’s comeback bid with 1:40 left in regulation.

Defensive end Kyle Moore recorded his second sack of the preseason when he dropped Dan Orlovsky in the first quarter … Cornerback Torrie Cox picked off his first pass of the preseason, which was also the first interception by a Tampa Bay cornerback. … Running back Clifton Smith was tied for the Bucs’ rushing lead with 43 yards on nine carries (4.8 avg.). … Receiver Brian Clark had 70 yards on four catches to lead Tampa Bay. … Jeremy Zuttah got the start at left tackle, a position he has not played since college. … The Bucs rushed for 124 yards on 28 carries (4.4 avg.), which means that Tampa Bay rushed for at least 120 yards in each preseason game. … Tampa Bay’s defense held Houston to 30 percent (3-of-10) on third down conversions, while the offense converted 42 percent (5-of-12) on third down. … The Bucs had six penalties for 62 yards.

The announced Tampa Bay starting lineup for Friday’s game was as follows:

WR Brian Clark
TE Ryan Purvis
LT Jeremy Zuttah
LG James Lee
C Rob Bruggeman
RG Marc Dile
RT Anthony Alabi
WR Maurice Stovall
RB Clifton Smith
FB B.J. Askew
QB Josh Freeman

LE Jimmy Wilkerson
DT Ryan Sims
DT Chris Hovan
RE Gaines Adams
WLB Geno Hayes
MLB Barrett Ruud
SLB Quincy Black
LCB Aqib Talib
RCB Ronde Barber
FS Will Allen
SS Sabby Piscitelli

Here is a list of Tampa Bay players sitting out the Bucs’ preseason finale:

QB Byron Leftwich (coach’s decision)
QB Luke McCown (coach’s decision)
RB Carnell Williams (coach’s decision)
RB Derrick Ward (coach’s decision)
RB Kareem Huggins (knee)
WR Antonio Bryant (knee surgery)
WR Michael Clayton (hamstring)
TE Kellen Winslow (coach’s decision)
TE Jerramy Stevens (coach’s decision)
TE John Gilmore (calf)
C Jeff Faine (coach’s decision)
LT Donald Penn (coach’s decision)
RT Jeremy Trueblood (coach’s decision)
RG Davin Joseph (coach’s decision)
LB Rod Wilson (hamstring)
LB Adam Hayward (ankle)
FS Will Allen (shoulder)
SS Donte Nicholson (quad)
K Matt Bryant (hamstring)

Rookie left tackle Xavier Fulton injured his left leg on the Bucs’ touchdown drive just before halftime and did not return. He was seen on crutches at the end of the game. Wide receiver Maurice Stovall injured his hand on the same drive and did not return. Cornerback E.J. Biggers left the game in the third quarter with a shoulder injury and did not return.

The announced attendance for the Buccaneers vs. Texans game at Raymond James Stadium was 63,831, but it looked like less than half that many fans were actually in the stands. The kickoff temperature was 88 degrees under cloudy skies.

The Buccaneers face the Dallas Cowboys at Raymond James Stadium on September 13 for the 2009 regular season opener. Kickoff is set for 1:00 p.m. ET

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at:
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