The legend of Josh Freeman, fourth-quarter magician, continues to grow.
On Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, Freeman calmly directed a game-winning, 81-yard touchdown drive in the final five minutes of an 18-17 win over the St. Louis Rams. After converting a fourth-and-three and overcoming a critical 15-yard penalty, Freeman gave the Bucs their first lead of the day with a one-yard scoring pass to RB Cadillac Williams.
Williams' eighth catch of the day and four field goals by K Connor Barth allowed the Buccaneers to overcome a 17-3 halftime deficit and improve to 4-2 on the season. Tampa Bay has already exceeded its win total from 2009 and remains just a half-game behind the 5-2 Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South. A loss to Cleveland on Sunday pushed the New Orleans Saints to third place in the division, at 4-3.
"Fun game," enthused Head Coach Raheem Morris. "We told you early in the week these were two young and exciting teams. We easily put in one of the worst first halves of my tenure. But this team plays 60 minutes. They've got no give-up in them. I'm so proud of these guys, but now we've got to go back and figure out how we can be more consistent."
Indeed, there was little to like in the first half of Sunday's game, as the Bucs gained just 87 yards of offense, failed to turn a fumble on the Rams' six-yard line into a touchdown and were tagged for 189 yards by a young Rams offense. But the Bucs have now won two games in 2010 in which they were at one point trailing by 10 or more points, following a 17-14 season-opening win over Cleveland in which they fell behind 14-3 in the first half. Since the beginning of 2008, the Bucs have won seven games in which they initially trailed by double digits. That's remarkable, given that prior to the 2008 season the franchise had gone nine years without a comeback of that magnitude.
Four of those comebacks have come in Freeman's 15 starts; he also owns a fifth fourth-quarter comeback from a deficit of less than 10 points. The Bucs' first-round pick in 2009 and the man the Bucs expect to lock down their quarterback position for many years to come, Freeman is now 6-3 in his last nine starts.
"There's no other person I want on my football team out there [in that situation] than Josh Freeman," said Morris. "He's got so much confidence. He loves wins more than he's afraid of losing."
Freeman finished the game with 212 yards on 23-of 40 passes. He was not intercepted despite heavy pressure from the blitz-happy Rams, who sacked him three times in the first half. Freeman also escaped that pressure on multiple occasions and was able to gain 40 important yards on five carries. On the game-winning pass, he rolled right away from the pressure, extending the play long enough for Williams to come open.
Williams led the team in catches (eight for 34) for the second straight week and scored his first receiving touchdown of the season at a most opportune time. Though he rushed for just 12 yards on four carries, the Buccaneers may have found the beginning of the solution to their problems running the ball. Rookie LeGarrette Blount ran just one time for six yards in the first half but became the workhorse after the break and finished with 72 yards on 11 carries. His average of 6.5 yards per tote would have been even better had his 46-yard run in the fourth quarter not been negated by a penalty.
That highlights a new problem cropped up on Sunday, however: penalties, which had a lot to do with the team's struggles, especially in the first half. The Bucs came into the game as the least penalized club in the NFL (1st in flags against, 2nd in penalties accepted) but repeatedly hurt themselves on Sunday with 12 penalties for 92 yards.
Some of the flags came at particularly bad times, such as the one that erased Kellen Winslow's touchdown catch in the first quarter and one that turned a St. Louis field goal attempt into a first down and, moments later, a touchdown. The Bucs' offensive line, which had two replacement starters in the game in Jeremy Zuttah and Ted Larsen, was guilty of seven penalties on the day. One, a third-quarter hold on Jeremy Trueblood, erased a 46-yard run. In the fourth quarter, Trueblood left the game due to injury and his replacement, James Lee committed a personal foul with a late hit that nearly killed the Buccaneers' last-ditch drive.
With Freeman calmly directing the action, however, the Bucs overcome a second-and-22 at midfield after that penalty, needing a fourth-down catch by Kellen Winslow to stay alive. Freeman also converted a third-and-10 with a sideline pass to Mike Williams, who punctuated his five-catch, 82-yard day by avoiding several tacklers to get down to the one-yard line.
Blount, the Bucs' backfield find, essentially did his best Steven Jackson imitation, breaking tackles and then turning on the speed in the open field. That was a problem for the Buccaneers' defense, as the real Jackson was able to power the Rams' offense with 110 yards on 22 carries. That kept the heat of rookie QB Sam Bradford, who tossed touchdown passes to Danny Amendola and Michael Hoomanawanui to build a 17-3 first-half lead. He was sacked just once, was not intercepted and was able to complete 13 of 26 passes for 126 yards.
The Buccaneers' defense had been adept at causing turnovers through their first games despite generating few sacks. On Sunday, they got the two in combination before the game was seven minutes old. DE Stylez White's sack of Bradford on the Rams' second dropback forced a fumble that DE Kyle Moore recovered at the six. That set up Barth's 35-yard field goal to open the game's scoring. Surprisingly, that would prove to be the only turnover of the game.
The Rams followed with 10 unanswered points on two long drives, relying on Jackson's running and some tricky plays with WR Danny Amendola. The first drive ended at the Bucs' seven when Geno Hayes got Jackson down on a third-and-14 catch, leading to Josh Brown's game-tying 25-yard field goal. The second time St. Louis got into scoring territory, it was able to convert for seven points, as Bradford hit Amendola on a little five-yard out against a big Bucs blitz. On both drives, the Bucs blitzed repeatedly but the Rams had the right plays dialed up, getting big chunks on screen passes and runs around the edge.
Click here for a detailed report of the game's first half.
Tampa Bay's defense was better in the second half, holding Jackson to 36 yards and the Rams to 96 overall. Three more Barth field goals, including a 53-yarder in the third quarter, pulled the Bucs closer while the defense held the Rams scoreless, just as it had in the win over the Browns in Week One.
The Rams started out the second half with good field position after Amendola's return to the Rams' 40, but the Bucs' defense forced its first punt of the game. However, the Bucs drew yet another flag on the return, forcing them to start at their own five. Blount ran twice up the middle and appeared to have a first down, but his second carry was called back by holding on G Ted Larsen. Two plays later, on third-and-eight, Winslow absorbed a big hit and held on for at the 18. Blount then found a seam again, leaping high over a final Rams tackler to get nine yards, and then got 12 more on the next tote. A play-action pass to Mike Williams gained 21 yards to the Rams' 40, but the drive stalled at the 35. Barth came in to nail a 53-yarder that pulled the Bucs within one score, at 17-9, halfway through the third period.
The Bucs coveted a three-and-out on the next drive and forced a third-and-six at the Rams 19, but Bradford found Gibson on the left sideline for a gain of 11. However, it was third-and-10 three plays later and CB E.J. Biggers was able to get a hand on a pass intended for Amendola.
Starting again at their own 31 after a punt, the Bucs neared midfield on Blount's tackle-breaking 17-yard run. On a third-and-eight three plays later, Freeman veered right away from pressure and floated a pass to Stroughter, who fought for nine yards and a first down. The team's 10th penalty of the day was a false start, but the Bucs moved the chains two plays later when Cadillac Williams drew a facemask personal foul on a tough catch-and-run. The drive stalled at the St. Louis 20 and Barth banged home a 38-yarder to make it 17-12 with two seconds left in the third quarter.
Jackson returned after sitting out the previous Rams drive and had an instant impact, as his three consecutive runs picked up 17 yards and led to a first down at midfield. However, Barber's run blitz stopped Jackson's next carry for just two yards and the Bucs were able to hold and force a punt. On the ensuing drive, Blount started off with a 46-yard escape around right end but Trueblood's penalty brought it back and the drive never recovered. The Bucs had to punt and Robert Malone's kick went out of bounds at the St. Louis 32.
A well-covered rollout pass and a run up the middle by Jackson left the Rams in a third-and-seven, but WR Laurent Robinson converted it with a fine catch of a low pass for just enough yards. The Rams' next third down came at the Bucs' 49 after a false start, and Jackson nearly converted it with a run before he was grabbed by his feet from behind by DE Tim Crowder. When Micheal Spurlock fair caught the ensuing punt, the Bucs had 4:45 left and 81 yards to cover for the potential go-ahead score.
They got eight of it and a first down on a pass zipped over the middle to Winslow. Two plays later, Freeman escaped what would have been a devastating sack and ran up the middle for eight yards to make it third-and-three. The Bucs then ran a draw with Cadillac Williams away from the St. Louis blitz and it was good for 10 yards and a first down at the 47. A post over the middle to Mike Williams gained 16 yards to the Rams' 37 as the two-minute warning arrived.
A late hit by Lee after a short catch by Williams – Lee was judged to have fallen on the pile after it was over – put the Bucs into a second-and-22 back at midfield. Two completions then created a do-or-die fourth-and-three at the St. Louis 30 and Freeman converted with a sharp pass to Winslow. Two plays later, he almost got Winslow again in the back of the end zone but the tight end couldn't quite pull it in. On the next play, Mike Williams caught a pass on the left sideline, ran around three tacklers and fought through another to get down to the one-yard line. The Bucs used their last timeout with 20 seconds remaining, then Freeman tried to get Williams on a slant but it was broken up. On the next play, Freeman rolled right, extended the play and eventually threw a touchdown pass to Cadillac Williams to put the Bucs up for the first time. Tampa Bay went for two but the Rams sniffed out Freeman's sneak attempt and it was no good.
That left 10 seconds on the clock, but the Bucs kept St. Louis from getting into field goal range when Black buried Amendola, a dangerous return man at the Rams' 22 on the ensuing kickoff. The Rams had time for just one improvised pitch-around and LB Barrett Ruud eventually fell on Steven Jackson's fumble to end the game.
Game Notes: Sunday's victory nearly evened the Buccaneers' all-time regular-season series with the Rams. St. Louis still holds the overall edge, nine wins to eight, but the Bucs have won the last five games played between the two teams at Raymond James Stadium. … CB Ronde Barber is now just one game away from 200 in his illustrious NFL career. Barber played in his 199th game, all for the Buccaneers, on Sunday against the Rams and contributed 10 tackles and a quarterback pressure. … K Connor Barth had his busiest day of the season so far, kicking four field goals in four attempts. He is now 24 of 31 on field goal attempts as a Buccaneer, including 10 of 12 this year. Barth is the first Bucs kicker with four field goals in a game since Matt Bryant did it against Minnesota on November 16, 2008.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: CB Elbert Mack, FB Earnest Graham, C Jeff Faine, G Keydrick Vincent, TE Jerramy Stevens, DT Brian Price, DE Alex Magee and designated third QB Rudy Carpenter. Mack, Graham, Faine, Vincent and Price were out due to injury.
The Rams deactivated these eight players: S Darian Stewart, CB Justin King, TE Fendi Onobun, LB Curtis Johnson, T Renardo Foster, WR Mardy Gilyard, DE Eugene Sims and DT Clifton Ryan. King, Gilyard and Ryan were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, WR Preston Parker sustained a knee injury on the opening kickoff and did not return.
For the Rams, CB Kevin Dockery sustained a ribs injury in the first quarter but did return to the game. S James Butler sustained a knee injury in the first half and did not return.