The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive MVPs on Saturday night just might have been cornerback E.J. Biggers and linebacker Geno Hayes.
Late in the first half of the Buccaneers' 17-13 preseason win over the Miami Dolphins, Biggers and Hayes combined to produce the game's only turnover. Biggers forced a fumble by wide receiver Brandon Marshall and Hayes recovered the loose ball near midfield, and just like that Head Coach Raheem Morris got his wish.
As the Buccaneers prepared for what would be the most useful of their four preseason games – with the starters playing an entire half – Morris emphasized situational football in practice. This is a staple for Morris during the regular season; he believes games are often decided by what happens in certain key situations, one of which is the two-minute drill.
Getting a two-minute opportunity for his starting offense (or, barring that, his starting defense) was, in fact, the main reason Morris elected to leave the starters on the field all the way to halftime. It looked like the defense was going to get that chance until Biggers and Hayes took the ball away with 2:09 left on the clock.
What followed was probably the most encouraging two minutes of the night for Morris and his team. Third-year quarterback Josh Freeman wasn't quite as sharp as he could have been throughout his two quarters of play, but in the two-minute drill he appeared to be in midseason form. In his brief but impressive NFL career, Freeman has done nothing better than come through when time is in short supply.
Morris refers to his young franchise QB "Free," and it's in clutch situations that the Bucs' passer feels free to let it all hang out.
"We just let everything go and just play, go play football," said Freeman of Tampa Bay's two-minute offense. "A lot of our guys feel the same way. They're just confident. We go out and we dictate the tempo, dictate the terms of the game."
The Bucs committed 15 penalties on Saturday night – probably the least encouraging aspect of the game – and one came on this drive, an illegal-formation infraction. Other than that, Freeman and his two-minute crew were almost flawless. After the penalty made it first-and-15 at the Bucs' 46, Freeman found wide receiver Arrelious Benn over the middle for 12 yards and threw a precision out to wide receiver Mike Williams for another eight.
A perfect screen pass left to running back Earnest Graham followed and was good for 15 yards, and then Freeman pulled out one of his patented scrambles for another 17 yards to the two-yard line. Along the way, Freeman burned just one of his three timeouts, meaning he had two left after running out of bounds at the two with 30 seconds to play. The Bucs lined up in a passing look and Freeman took a shotgun snap with Graham next to him in the pocket. Instead of throwing, Freeman slipped the football to Graham, who found a seam to the right of the center and ran in almost untouched. With two timeouts left, the Bucs could safely run the ball, and the bit of misdirection worked to perfection.
That was Freeman's last play of the game, and it capped a reasonably good night for him and the first-team offense, which will now take a spectator role in the final preseason game. Their next action will come in the regular-season opener on September 11.
"I think we're right where we need to be," said Freeman. "Obviously a lot of it right now is getting everybody out [there], getting everybody back in the swing of things in terms of being out there. I know all the guys felt good, guys were excited, the energy was high. It was great to come out and get that much playing time."
Overall, Freeman was 12 of 23 for 149 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. It added up to a passer rating of 72.6, which doesn't measure up to his final number of 95.9 last year, but in a sample size this small it's easy to see how close Freeman really was to his 2010 form. Freeman admits to overthrowing at least three targets he should have hit – one to Williams and two to tight end Kellen Winslow – and he just as easily could have thrown the ball into the end zone at the end of that two-minute drill. Add three completions and one touchdown to his night and Freeman's passer rating instantly shoots up to 97.9.
So Freeman could have been a bit rusty in his first extended action of 2011, but Morris had specifically wanted Saturday night to be an opportunity for the starters to "shake off the rust."
"Yeah, he missed a couple guys," said Morris. "I was pretty happy with how he ended up. He was about a 70-something-percent quarterback rating, and if he hit those couple receivers it's a lot higher and he's Drew Brees. He's working to be there. We'll get him there, and he'll continue to get better every single week. We're right on track, especially compared to where he was last year."
Last summer, Freeman fractured the tip of his right thumb on the first offensive series of the second preseason game, and didn't return to action until the regular-season opener. That limited him to all of eight throws in the preseason (great ones, as it turned, as he completed six of them for 74 yards and a touchdown). This year, he has played the exact number of summer snaps that the coaching staff prescribed, and he's right on track. He would have liked a few throws back on Saturday night, but they didn't cause him any lasting concern.
"It's nothing I'm really concerned about. Obviously penalties set us back on the first drive, but it felt good. You ask anybody and they felt great about being out there on offense and going through our standard operating procedures.
"It's the preseason. It serves a purpose and we got everything we're trying to do accomplished, so I feel really good about looking forward to Detroit."