Tampa Bay Buccaneers second-year quarterback Josh Freeman has a passer rating of 84.6 and for the most part has looked even more poised and promising than that number would imply. Freeman, for his part, has raved about the protection he has received from his offensive line. The Bucs' young receiving corps has flashed big-play potential and the running game, while yet to provide explosive results, has been steady enough to help Tampa Bay control the clock.
So far, as it turns out, those encouraging elements have produced just under 17 points per game, which ranks in the lower third of the NFL. One reason: The team has mounted nine drives that have reached the opponent's red zone, but only three of those have resulted in touchdowns.
A touchdown percentage of 33.3%, and an overall scoring rate of 66.7% (three other red zone drives have produced field goals) definitely fall short of the Buccaneers' goals inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Freeman and the Bucs' offense realize this, but they also realize that the season is still young, and a nine-drive sample size does not necessarily prove anything.
In other words, the Buccaneers plan to pursue touchdowns aggressively inside the 20, but they're not going to panic because their red zone scoring rate is not yet up to par.
"There's a fine line between being aggressive and too aggressive," said Freeman. "We've got to go down there and understand that field goals on every possession don't win football games in this league. You've got to go down, get in the red zone and capitalize on your drive. That's definitely been an emphasis and we'll get better as the season continues."
Freeman has thrown just two interceptions so far in 2010, but one of those came on a pass that deflected off a receiver's hands and went to a Pittsburgh defender in Week Three after the Bucs had reached the red zone. One inside-the-20 drive against Cleveland came up empty when sure-handed back Earnest Graham fumbled on a goal-line carry. The Bucs were trying to put the game away and run out the clock on that opening-week, fourth-quarter drive; they got the ball down to the goal line again minutes later and played it safe on a fourth-down bootleg by Freeman while sitting on a 20-7 lead.
None of those drives ended as the Buccaneers had planned, but neither were any of them the result of a fundamental lack of aggression. The team's coaching staff has been very pleased with the way Freeman has handled himself in that critical part of the field.
"Down in the red zone, it's either touchdown or checkdown," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "You don't want to take points off the scoreboard. I think we learned that mistake last year in Carolina the hard way, and I think Free's done a great job of managing that. You'd like to eliminate the things have happened to us a couple times. We fumbled a snap on one of them. We actually fumbled the ball and gave it back to them on one carry down there that I can remember, a couple weeks ago.
"If you eliminate those plays and you make those, even three, or you get the seven points out of it because you don't have the plays that hurt you, then you're starting to feel better about your red zone offense. You've got to eliminate the turnovers, obviously, and then it's either touchdown or checkdown, take your three and be able to get out of there. People are going to challenge us a little more because we have a young quarterback. In some of those situations, Free's been able to exploit that, and he's going to get better and better as he continues to develop and grow."
One reason Freeman believes his team's results in the red zone will improve as the season progresses is that he has several weapons at his disposal that are well-suited to that part of the field. A pair of mobile, tall and sure-handed tight ends in Jerramy Stevens and Kellen Winslow is just the start of it; second-year receiver Sammie Stroughter is savvy in traffic and rookie pass-catcher Mike Williams has already proven he has a nose for the end zone.
"We've got a nice package with Jeremy, a nice package with Kellen down there, a nice package with Sammie that you've seen a little bit of," said Morris. "All those guys really create a bunch of weapons for him to go to and they've done a great job. Last year I think we were pretty high in the red zone. Now we've made a couple mistakes that kind of got us out of there. The Cleveland Browns was one where I kind of limited them a little bit, didn't let them throw it down there on one of those plays, but it was all about winning the football game at that point."
Back with a Bang
Last year, the Buccaneers beat the Green Bay Packers, 38-28, in Week Nine of the NFL season. Almost exactly a year before that, in Week 11 of the 2008 NFL campaign, the Bucs downed the Minnesota Vikings, 19-13.
What did those two victories have in common, besides the fact that each came against a team that was bound for the playoffs in that same season? Just a bit of circumstance: Each of those games happened to be the Buccaneers' return to action after its bye week.
The Buccaneers won the game following their bye week in 2007, as well, though that one came against an Atlanta Falcons team that would limp to a 4-12 finish. Even so, those victories make up a nice little run for Tampa Bay in its post-relaxation period, suggesting the team has found a productive way to use its bye week. That's relevant at the moment, of course, because the 2010 Buccaneers are currently enjoying the one weekend they'll get off this entire fall.
As we mentioned on Buccaneers Insider earlier this week (find it here in the Buccaneers.com video archive), the NFL began inserting bye weeks into its schedule in 1990, and Tampa Bay is 9-12 all-time in games immediately following those off weeks. There's one extra game for the 20 seasons from 1990-2009 because in 1993 the NFL conducted a schedule with two bye weeks, an experiment that was thankfully short-lived.
Before Malcolm Glazer purchased the Buccaneers in 1995 and the franchise began its impressive turnaround a year later, the losses greatly outweighed the wins in the early '90s. That was true after bye weeks, as well, as the Bucs lost six of the first seven games they played under those conditions.
Recently, however, the team has fared better in that circumstance, winning seven of its last 12, including the last three. They will try to make it four in a row in Cincinnati on October 10.
Interestingly, however, the bye week doesn't seem to be much of an advantage across the NFL, or at least it wasn't in 2009. Each of the 32 teams got one bye last fall, of course, and those teams combined to go 16-16 after their respective breaks. It's true that two of those 16 losses came to other teams coming off byes at the same time, but even if one removes those two defeats, the resulting 16-14 edge for the rested teams hardly seems indicative of any advantage.
Worth Another Look
The Cleveland Browns have Josh Cribbs and the Pittsburgh Steelers have, statistically, the second-best kickoff return crew in the league this year. And yet the Buccaneers, who have already faced those two teams as well as the Carolina Panthers, have very effectively shut down their opponents' return games.
Through three weeks, the Buccaneers rank fourth in the NFL in opponent kickoff return average. On 13 runbacks by the Browns, Panthers and Steelers, the Buccaneers have allowed an average of just 17.9 yards to be gained. Tampa Bay's punt coverage squad has been nearly as good, ranking 10th in the NFL with an opponent mark of just 5.6 yards per runback.
Here are a few other statistical areas in which Tampa Bay excelled during the month of September:
- The Bucs and kicker Connor Barth have yet to miss a field goal in five tries. Obviously, that ties for first in the NFL in field goal percentage;
- Tampa Bay's six interceptions matches Atlanta for the most in the NFL. Given the differing number of passes thrown against each team, the Buccaneers rank first in the NFL in interceptions per pass attempt;
- Tampa Bay's defense has allowed 48 first downs through three games, or 16.0 per game. That is tied for seventh best in the league;
- The Bucs have allowed 66.7% of their opponents' drives into the red zone to end in points. Only three teams have allowed a lower percentage;
- Tampa Bay has tried to control the clock by sticking to its rushing attack even when it starts slow. It has worked. The Bucs' average time of possession through three games is 32:05. Only six teams in the NFL have been better in that category.