Josh Freeman did what he does best on Thursday: He threw the football.
Sounds simple, but that's something Freeman hadn't really done – save for a few soft tosses during warm-ups – for 11 days, since he landed awkwardly on his right shoulder on the last play of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Week 12 game in Tennessee. The third-year quarterback got virtually no practice time last week and unsurprisingly did not play against the Carolina Panthers. He began this week by stating his goal of returning in time for Sunday's game in Jacksonville, but then was mostly a spectator again during Wednesday afternoon's practice.
So it can only be considered a noteworthy step forward that Freeman was back in the pocket on Thursday, throwing live, full-speed passes during first-team offensive drills. He didn't participate in every practice period, but he took all the throws during several of the ones he did lead. Head Coach Raheem Morris agreed that Thursday's practice represented Freeman's most significant progress since his injury.
"You'd have to say that," said Morris. "He went out there and threw the ball, was pretty productive. He felt pretty good."
It's possible Freeman could have done even more. The coaching staff eventually pulled him and gave Josh Johnson a good share of the first-team reps, but that was merely an effort not to overdo it on Freeman's first big day back. Also, Johnson needs practice time in case Freeman does not complete his comeback this week.
"We were able to give Josh [Freeman] a couple of full periods today, and really he felt good," said Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson. "We did it more for our own selves to be honest with you, we pulled him out. We'll get a chance to see how he feels tomorrow. He felt good afterwards. He iced it down while we were out there at the later part of practice, but he threw it well in the periods that he did practice in, but Josh Johnson's done a nice job in that role. We'll get a better feel for it tomorrow when we look at Freeman."
Johnson performed fairly well in his first start in over two years against the Panthers, and the Buccaneers are confident in their ability to win with him at the helm. Morris has also made it clear that the team won't subject Freeman to any undue risk, given his long-term value to the franchise.
"Next guy up – Josh Johnson," said Morris. "Like we talked about last week, he's a very capable guy, going in there and getting it done. He was able to finish practice and do all the stuff we needed him to do during practice. Those guys do a great job over there in communicating."
Still, Freeman will clearly take the reins back when he is medically cleared to play, and his work on Thursday at least raised the level of optimism at One Buc Place by some degree.
"[I have] a little bit higher expectations for him," said Morris. "So we'll have to go day to day still and see where he is tomorrow. We'll see how sore he is tomorrow and where we can go from there."
Aqib Talib entered December on a roll, ready to extend a hot streak by facing one of his stiffest challenges of the year, Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith. Talib had fashioned an eye-opening performance against Green Bay's Greg Jennings in Week 11 and had followed with a critical pick-six against Tennessee in Week 12. The twice-annual Talib-Smith battled was sure to be a high point of the Panthers' visit to Tampa.
Unfortunately, that anticipated matchup only lasted about five plays. Talib suffered a hamstring injury on Carolina's game-opening drive and had to leave the contest for good. Steve Smith fantasy football owners began licking their chops.
Then something interesting happened: The Buccaneers' secondary kept Smith in check anyway. The NFL's second-leading receiver coming into the game (in terms of yards), Smith caught just two passes for 32 yards, 23 of those coming on a fourth-quarter catch after the Panthers were already up by 19. Obviously, given that big Panther lead, it was not a fantastic day for the Buccaneers' defense overall, but the goal of containing Smith was achieved even without Talib.
Veteran Ronde Barber had a lot to do with that, switching sides after Talib's departure and taking on the one-on-one battle with Smith during base-defense situations. E.J. Biggers also played the prolific Panther receiver well for much of the afternoon when the Bucs went to their nickel package.
"[Barber] did a great job," said Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake. "He went out and played Steve Smith really well. Then when we went nickel, we actually put E.J. Biggers on Steve Smith. He had two catches for 35 yards; obviously he hit us on that one big one, and that was one E.J. Biggers was on him. From that standpoint of the game, we felt pretty good because we know Steve Smith can change a game and he was really only a factor on one play."
With Talib sidelined, Biggers became an every-down player, Elbert Mack became the nickel back and rookie Anthony Gaitor stepped up to the dime back role. The Bucs may have to lean on all of those DBs – plus Myron Lewis, who was inactive for the Carolina game – again this weekend because it is very possible that Talib's injury will keep him out another week. Talib did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday and the team sent him to get an MRI to see if there was any damage that would lead to a longer layoff.
"It was obvious he couldn't finish the game last week, so we'll see how serious it is and how many weeks it's going to be or if it's going to be any weeks," said Lake. "But 'Next Man Up' theory: If he can't go, then obviously Biggers and Elbert Mack, Myron Lewis, Anthony Gaitor – between all of them they've got to be ready to go."
Because the nickel back is often on the field for about 40-50% of a game's snaps – and more if it's a team like the Packers that frequently uses multiple-receiver sets – Biggers has already been a very visible part of the Bucs' defensive efforts this season. He has 34 tackles, an interception and 10 passes defensed; in Tennessee, he successfully defended three attempted passes into the end zone to his man. As the dime back, Mack generally only plays when the opposing team goes to a four-receiver formation, but he has still seen enough playing time to make a handful of memorable plays.
"If you're injured, the next guy's going to play," said Lake. "And…Elbert Mack took advantage in the preseason. He played lights-out in the preseason. He played probably the best bump coverage of anybody. You go back and watch the tape – Aqib, Ronde, everybody. So he leap-frogged ahead. And he's continued to play stellar for us, made plays for us in games. He had a big interception in Green Bay."
Lake was actually referring to Mack's ability to take advantage of an opening in August caused by an injury to Lewis, the second-year player who was drafted in the third round in 2010. After Talib landed on injured reserve for the final five games of last season, Lewis began to emerge as a solid defender, leading to hopes for his further development in his second season. However, another injury during training camp, compounded by a lack of an offseason program, obviously slowed that development.
If Talib misses any significant amount of time, however, Lewis will have an opportunity to once again build some late-season momentum.
"He's doing good," said Lake of Lewis. "We'd like him to progress even more, though. His attitude's great. For him, it's going to be, when he gets his opportunity he's got to step up to the plate and show us that, 'Hey, you're going to be the next guy.' This could be the week, you never know. Last week Anthony Gaitor played really well. He came in, and Myron Lewis was down for the game. Gaitor was up for special teams purposes but, bam, Aqib Talib goes down and now Gaitor became our fourth corner just like that. He came in and really played really well.
"All the corners have Aqib and Ronde in front of them, and Biggers. Myron knows what he's got to do – when he gets his opportunity, he's got to take advantage of it. If he doesn't – and that's any position in the NFL – then the next guy's going to get his opportunity. And if he plays well, then that guy's probably going to play more."
Even without Talib, if that ends up being the case, the Bucs' secondary would seem to have an opportunity to make some big plays this Sunday. It will be facing rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert, the NFL's last-ranked passer at this point with a 64.5 rating. Still, Gabbert is clearly talented, having been drafted 10th overall this past April, and he's capable of breaking out this weekend. The Bucs need somebody in the secondary to step up if one of their top playmakers is indeed on the sideline.
Closing the Alley
Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jaguars 5-7 powerhouse of a running back, is probably the NFL player most often compared to a bowling ball. The Buccaneers don't want him to find any open lanes.
When run-defense problems have struck for the Bucs' defense this season – unfortunately, that has happened a bit too often – it has usually been described as a breakdown in assignments. Tampa Bay defenders say they have missed gap fits, creating easy-to-find openings for opposing backs. That's exactly the sort of mistake that Jones-Drew is excellent at exploiting.
"The guy's just so fast, and he's short so he's just so compact," said defensive tackle Roy Miller. "He hits people and they bounce off of him. People go low on him and he sidesteps them. He's just one of those guys in the league that you have to gang-tackle and you have to play perfect, sound defense or he'll find a way to cut it back and expose small mistakes here and there."
The Buccaneers' decision to scale back the defensive playbook this week primarily relates to those run-fits, so it is hoped there will be fewer mistakes this Sunday in Jacksonville. And with rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert struggling for the Jaguars, one would expect Tampa Bay to focus very heavily on stopping Jones-Drew. Still, Jacksonville's offensive centerpiece has seen that sort of treatment all year and it hasn't slowed him down much; in fact, he is the NFL's leading rusher with 1,137 yards.
"That shows you how talented he is," said Lake. "You load the box, they don't check to a pass, they hand the football off and he's still drilling people. He is their team and we have to stop him.
"The guy is a beast. He runs physical. You can tell he runs with passion. He runs behind his pads. He's always looking to run somebody over. He's looking to hurt you when he runs the football. They throw the ball to him on check-downs. That guy, if we can stop him then we're going to feel pretty good on defense."
Many Buccaneer defenders probably tuned in to Monday Night Football earlier this week to see Jones-Drew pound away at the San Diego Chargers' defense. San Diego won the game, 38-14, but they didn't contain Jacksonville's top weapon. Of the 306 yards of total offense gained by the Jaguars, Jones-Drew accounted for 188 of them, 97 on the ground and 91 in the passing game.
"They've got a great running back, makes a lot of plays," said linebacker Mason Foster. "It's going to be tough to stop him; we've just got to get him down. He's one of the main players on their team and he's making a lot of plays for them right now.
"He just runs really hard, low to the ground. He's really big and strong. He's big and strong but he's short, so it's like a" – wait for it – "bowling ball."