In short order since entering the league in 2009, Josh Freeman has earned a reputation as a crunch-time star, leading his Tampa Bay Buccaneers to six fourth-quarter/overtime comeback victories in his first 25 NFL starts.
Obviously, the Buccaneers are thrilled that their young quarterback has been so impressive in the end-game, and that their youthful roster over all has been able to collectively keep its head in the most critical moments. However, there's something to be said for not always needing last-minute heroics, because sometimes it's just not going to work out. Last Sunday, for instance, the Bucs rallied impressively from a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter against Detroit but eventually ran out of time before their last drive could potentially tie the game.
And so, once again, the Buccaneers are fielding questions about their predilection for starting slowly, and trying their best to provide the answers. According to Head Coach Raheem Morris, there is no magic bullet; it's mostly a matter of believing in the work you've put in before the game.
"We've just got to trust our preparation, what we do every day when we go out and practice," said Morris. "Starting fast and things of that nature, those things will happen as we get better. I look forward to our guys going out today and presenting our best selves on that first snap."
Because the Bucs are so good at battling for the full 60 minutes, a good start usually means an enjoyable end. Last year, Tampa Bay was 5-1 when it scored before its opponent, 3-0 when it led at the end of the first quarter and 6-1 when it led at halftime. The Bucs scored a touchdown in the first quarter of four of their games last year, and won three of those outings.
One more thing the Bucs did well in 2010, which was quite encouraging for the NFL's youngest team: It almost never let a loss linger. Tampa Bay lost back-to-back games only once last season. After what could probably have been the most demoralizing of the year, a 23-20 overtime decision at home against Detroit last December, the Bucs rebounded to blow out Seattle and grab a huge road win in New Orleans. Those two wins kept Tampa Bay in the NFC playoff hunt up until the final hours of the regular season, though the final spot eventually went to Green Bay on a tiebreaker. Now the Bucs are coming off another loss at home to Detroit, but they have much more time to solidify their spot in the playoff hunt.
So it wasn't a surprise to Morris that his team reacted well this week to the challenge of following that opening-day loss with a tough road game at Minnesota.
"It went very well," he said. "We've got a young team that's been able to show the ability to bounce back before. Our guys can't wait to get out there and practice, and that's where they are right now. We had great practice this week, the tempo was up, morale was certainly up and now we have another opportunity to get out there again."
Two Buccaneers are specifically looking forward to Sunday's opportunity after being promoted to the starting lineup this week: left guard Jeremy Zuttah and defensive tackle Brian Price. In addition, the offense should find significantly more work for second-year receiver Preston Parker after Sammie Stroughter went down with a foot injury last Sunday.
"We'll certainly miss Sammie, but we've got a young man behind him named Preston Parker that's going to step into that role and do a great job for us," said Morris. "We've got a lot of confidence in him and his ability. We look forward to Jeremy Zuttah getting another opportunity to go out there and be a starter today. That certainly fires me up because of how he's practice and how he's played since not being a starter. We have an opportunity to get Price out there for the first time [as a starter], and he's as healthy as we've seen him probably in his two years here with the Bucs. All those things fire me up."
The Bucs hope a little more work for Price can help spark a young defensive line to a more impactful performance against Minnesota than it turned in last Sunday. The Bucs' didn't record any sacks of Lions QB Matthew Stafford, but that was more a function of Detroit's reliance on very quick passes. However, the run defense could have been more stout, particularly in the middle. The Bucs' D-Linemen might see more standard drop-backs by Vikings QB Donovan McNabb this week, but they also have a serious challenge ahead of them in Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson.
Price missed about a quarter of the last game due to cramps in his hamstring, but he was one of the better performers up front when he was in the game, and the team believes he can make a difference.
"He went out there in the game and played really well last week," said Morris. "Now he's got an opportunity to go out there as a starter in this game. We've got a chance to really get him going. We look forward to getting him something like in the upper 30s in terms of snaps, where he should always be, and we'll get him through that."
And hopefully they'll get through their matchup with Peterson without too much damage. Peterson is difficult to contain completely, but the Bucs would probably consider it a success if they keep him from breaking out into the open too many times.
"Adrian Peterson's a great player," said Morris. "You've got to go out there and try to contain him and not let him kill you with big runs and big plays. That's always hard to do, as a lot of people have found out. We've got to go out there, tackle, hustle and hit and follow our game plan. Play fast, hard, smart and consistent, and hopefully have a chance to win this game at the end."
With the slight change in gameday active rules in the NFL this year – teams can now keep up any 46 active players, instead of 45 plus an inactive third quarterback – the Bucs had to name only seven inactives on Sunday morning. Those seven are WR Sammie Stroughter, RB Allen Bradford, S Larry Asante, CB Myron Lewis, CB Anthony Gaitor, T Demar Dotson and T James Lee. Stroughter, Lewis and Lee were out due to injuries.
Rookie TE Zach Pianalto will be active for the first time in his NFL career after being named one of the seven inactives last week. That gives the Bucs a more common complement of three tight ends for the game. With Lee injured and Dotson inactive, the Bucs will rely on starting left guard Jeremy Zuttah to play tackle if either of the two starters suffers an injury.
Minnesota's seven inactives are CB Brandon Burton, S Mistral Raymond, C Brandon Fusco, DE Adrian Awasom, T DeMarcus Love, WR Greg Camarillo and DE D'Aundre Reed. Only Awasom was out due to injury. The Vikings reported no changes to their starting lineup.
The Bucs and Vikings 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.