Josh Freeman and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense was good for much of the 2010 season and then, during the final month, it was often spectacular.
The 2011 campaign hasn't gone quite as well, and Freeman even missed the Buccaneers' last game due to a right shoulder injury, snapping his 36-game starts streak. However, Freeman will return to the lineup Sunday in Jacksonville, and the Bucs still believe they can finish 2011 as impressively as they did a year ago.
Though Josh Johnson played well against Carolina in his first start since 2009, the team believes its best hopes for that fast finish – and continued success in the years to come – is with Freeman under center.
"It's all about building this thing around Josh Freeman," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "Having him back in there is certainly a credit to his strength and toughness. It puts some stuff back in our offense that we want to have in there. No disrespect to Josh Johnson but we want to build this thing around Josh Freeman."
Freeman suffered a right shoulder injury on the Bucs' last offensive play in Tennessee in Week 12 when he was tackled awkwardly on his throwing arm. He was unable to play the following Sunday against Carolina but made significant progress this week as the team prepared for the Jaguars. He took a majority of the first-team snaps in practice on Thursday and Friday, threw extensively and showed the coaching staff that he was ready to go on Sunday. Morris would not have taken a chance on Freeman's return had he not been confident that the young passer was fully recovered from his injury.
"He looked good," said Morris. "He got better and better throughout the week. By the end of the week he was able to take on a full load. He'll be up and ready to go today and we'll see how far he can take us."
While Freeman was working his way back into the mix, the coaching staff was modifying the overall approach on both offense and defense. For Freeman's group, that means a somewhat slimmer playbook as Morris seeks to free up his young players to perform faster and with more confidence.
"It really went well," said Morris of the week of practice. "We got a chance to focus on ourselves a little bit. Whenever things are not going the right way, you move things back a little bit. We scaled things back and we hope it will let us play a little bit faster this week."
The defense will work with a smaller complement of schemes today, as well, as the Bucs seek to improve the consistency of their gap fits against the running game. Still, no matter what the coaches call, Morris says the team's chances for success still come down to the same four principles he has pushed since taking over the helm in 2009.
"It's the same as always," said Morris. "It's about us. It's about playing hard, fast, smart and consistent. We've got to find a way to do that better every single week."
Today, they'll have to do it without one of their top defensive playmakers, as cornerback Aqib Talib will sit out due to the hamstring injury he suffered early in last Sunday's game. E.J. Biggers will move up into the starting lineup and Elbert Mack will see plenty of action as the nickel back. The Bucs will also keep both Myron Lewis and Anthony Gaitor active, whereas they have generally chosen one or the other on game days this season.
"It puts E.J. Biggers in a starting role again, which he has done before," said Morris of Talib's absence. "He's done a nice job doing that for us in the past. It also puts Elbert Mack into the game a little bit more in the nickel, and brings Myron Lewis or Anthony Gaitor in as our dime. Both of those guys did a great job for us this week."
The secondary – or at least the special teams units – also could get a boost from the arrival of rookie safety Ahmad Black, the Bucs' fifth-round pick out of the University of Florida. Black has spent the entire season on the practice squad but was just promoted to the active roster on Friday after proving himself in practice in recent weeks. With S Larry Asante out due to a practice-field hamstring injury, Black was kept among today's 46 active players.
"We had a little injury to Larry Asante and we're going to hold him out today, so we had a chance to bring up Ahmad Black," said Morris. "He's been doing well in practice. The young man out of Florida has been fired up and he's been giving his team a positive boost down the stretch. We look forward to putting him out there tomorrow."
That secondary will face the league's last-ranked passing attack on Sunday, as running back Maurice Jones-Drew has been the Jaguars' only consistent offensive weapon this season. While Jones-Drew has racked up a league-leading 1,137 rushing yards, rookie QB Blaine Gabbert has struggled in his first season at the helm. However, the Bucs know that Gabbert is still a very talented player capable of putting it all together any week. If he does, the Jaguars have the supporting cast around him to finish the season strong, just as the Bucs hope to do.
"You're talking about a young player who has nothing but upside to him," said Morris. "He'll look to come out and get better and better every week. Hopefully we can shut him down and keep him from getting better this week in order to get us a victory.
"They've got Maurice Jones-Drew, who's always going to be one of the toughest guys in the league to deal with. They've got Paul Posluszny in the middle for that defense and he'll play as tough as anybody. These guys are going to come out and give you a fight. To their credit, they're going to play as hard as they can and I don't expect anything less."
In addition to Talib and Asante, the Buccaneers declared the following players inactive: QB Rudy Carpenter, WR Sammie Stroughter, DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, G Derek Hardman and T James Lee.
Jacksonville will be without a pair of usual defensive starters, as well. Left defensive end Matt Roth and safety Dwight Lowery are both out due to injuries, so Leger Douzable will start on the defensive line and rookie Chris Prosinski will step in for the secondary. In addition to Roth and Lowery, the Jaguars deactivated QB Dan LeFevour, WR Taylor Price, CB T.J. Heath, RB Deji Karim and C John Estes.
The Bucs and Jaguars kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. 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.