The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won five straight road games and will try to set a franchise record with a sixth in a row Sunday in Atlanta. Those five wins haven't had a whole lot in common, besides some very upbeat plane rides home; the destinations have spanned Seattle to Charlotte and the winning margins have ranged from 17 to three points.
Actually, though, there may be one common thread in that run: Josh Freeman.
The Buccaneers are 7-3 in Freeman's last 10 starts, as the young quarterback's passing efficiency has steadily improved. In 2010, Freeman's first year as a full-time starter, he has been particularly strong in some of the most telling situations – a 95.4 passer rating in the fourth quarter and an 86.4 mark on third downs.
And when the Bucs have needed their young leader to guide through tough situations in hostile environments, he has done it again and again. Freeman's strong work during the team's five-game road streak is reflected in the raw numbers: 87 of 139 passing (62.6%) for 1,212 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions (only two picks in three road wins this season) for a passer rating of 93.0.
Evidence continues to mount supporting the team's belief that it has, at long last, found its franchise quarterback. Perhaps more than anything, that's what gives the upstart Buccaneers confidence they can win in any situation, including the one they face Sunday, as major underdogs in a very difficult venue to play.
"He's growing every single day, and the more and more he plays the better and better he'll get," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "We're going to let him go out there and compete at his highest level like always."
Freeman's own confidence, which is obviously not lacking, has to have grown last week when the offense finally found a running game to help him out. The Bucs had struggled to sustain that part of their offense for most of the first six games but in Arizona rode rookie LeGarrette Blount to a season-high 154 yards. Obviously, Blount's breakout performance has put him in line for an even bigger role in the offense.
"He did a nice job, and now he's got to go out there and improve on that performance, become a part of our package and our everyday game," said Morris. "I think he can and I think he will."
Blount and Freeman will once again be operating behind a revamped offensive line, as starting center Jeff Faine and starting right tackle Jeremy Trueblood stayed back in Tampa to speed their recoveries from quad and knee injuries, respectively. That means James Lee will make his second career start at right tackle and rookie Ted Larsen will open a third straight game at left guard as Jeremy Zuttah remains at center. That combination performed very well in Arizona as the Bucs have, by necessity, made some very pleasant discoveries about their depth.
"Guys having to step up, that's what it's all about," said Morris. "We've talked about once you get in there you've got to become a starter. That's what these guys have done. They've bought in and now they're out there starting for us. I can't wait to see them again today. We're getting better and better every week, sometimes because we're losing people. Some guys go out and somebody else has to step up and go in there and play. We're looking forward to getting our guys back shortly. We'll compete with the players we have in the meantime."
Faine and Trueblood are two of the three offensive starters sidelined for today's game, as fullback Earnest Graham (hamstring) also remained in Tampa. That means added playing time for rookie fullback/tight end Erik Lorig, who only converted from defensive end to the offensive side of the ball a little over a month ago. The Bucs will also be without second-year wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (foot), one of their most trusted third-down weapons. Wide receiver Micheal Spurlock will need to step up behind rookie starters Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn.
In addition to Faine, Trueblood, Graham and Stroughter, the Buccaneers have deactivated CB Myron Lewis, DE Alex Magee, DT Ryan Sims and designated third quarterback Rudy Carpenter. Sims was also out due to injury, and his absence means the first time in action for rookie DE Al Woods.
Atlanta's eight inactives are CB Dominique Franks, LB Sean Weatherspoon, T Garrett Reynolds, G Mike Johnson, TE Justin Peelle, DE Lawrence Sidbury, DT Trey Lewis and designated third quarterback John Parker Wilson. Weatherspoon and Peelle were out due to injuries. With Weatherspoon missing his fourth game in the last five Falcon outings, former USF LB Stephen Nicholas will start in his place.
The Falcons obviously still have plenty of weapons, as evidenced by their sixth-ranked offense. The trio of QB Matt Ryan, RB Michael Turner and WR Roddy White has proved to be difficult to stop in 2010, and White in particular is having his best season yet.
"They're a very good football team," said Morris. "They play hard for their coach. They play smart. They do a lot of things that we're trying to get done in Tampa. We've got to go out there and compete, be our very best today and have a chance. These guys present a nice challenge for us."
As good as White has been, it may be more important for the Buccaneers to slow down Turner. The 2008 first-team All-Pro back is on pace for over 1,300 yards in 2010 and he's the type of power runner that has found success against the Bucs this season.
"You always anticipate seeing a lot of Michael Turner when you're talking about playing against the Atlanta Falcons," said Morris. "One of the better things they do is run the football, and that sets up their play-action pass and everything else they do off of it. We plan on seeing a bunch of him."
The Bucs and Falcons kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. A few hours later, one of the two teams will have sole possession of first place in the NFC South. That obviously attaches added importance to an already heated rivalry, but the Buccaneers are approaching the game just as they have their last five times away from home.
"For us, it's the most important game because it's our next," said Morris. "There is nothing other than that that causes pressure for these guys. These guys are going to go out there and be playmakers. Let's implement our formula and go play the game."
Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.