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The Color of Victory!

The first Buc rookie to throw three TD passes in a game, Josh Freeman is now 1-0 as an NFL starter

It’s too bad that no word in the English language rhymes with orange because, wearing that long-mothballed hue on Sunday against old foe Green Bay, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were poetry in motion.

And the poet laureate? Josh Freeman, who the Buccaneers are hoping will eventually produce a body of work worthy of the masters. Freeman threw three touchdown passes in his first NFL start, including two in the fourth quarter as Tampa Bay rallied from 11 points down to beat the Packers, 38-28.

Freeman completed 14 of 31 passes for 205 yards, three touchdowns, one pick and an 86.1 passer rating. He showed touch, creativity, elusiveness and determination in a game that bodes well for the future of the man expected to develop into that long-awaited franchise quarterback.

Most of all, Freeman, the youngest player ever to start at quarterback for the Buccaneers, was as calm as a 10-year veteran, even when Green Bay made it 28-17 with 13 minutes to play.

“His age really doesn’t matter at this point,” said Head Coach Raheem Morris. “He’s got to be a seven-year vet and lead us where we need to go. It was what we thought he was. That’s why we brought him in here to lead this franchise. I’m sure everyone could feel his poise. You know when he goes out there that you’ve got the ability to win.

“But we still have to be patient. That’s one game. That’s a good start.”

For that reason, the Buccaneers could have hardly picked a better day to put on the uniforms designed on those they wore in their inaugural season of 1976. The victory was Tampa Bay’s first of the season and the first for Morris since he became head coach. While it improved the team’s record to just 1-7, don’t be fooled: This was one of the most memorable moments in franchise annals.

Tampa Bay wore orange and white for the first 21 years of team history before adopting their current red-and-pewter look. This marked the first time since the final game of 1996 that the Buccaneers had put on their former togs, and they also marked the occasion by introducing the new Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium. Hall of Fame DE Lee Roy Selmon became the first person inducted into the Ring during a moving halftime ceremony, and his name and number were unveiled on the East side of the stadium

If the Buccaneers’ 34-year history has had a little bit of everything, so did this game. Tampa Bay rallied to tie or take the lead three different teams, helped out by CB Ronde Barber’s 14th career touchdown, Clifton Smith’s 83-yard kickoff return, Elbert Mack’s first career incompletion, six sacks of QB Aaron Rodgers by six different players, a near-safety and a touchdown by Tanard Jackson on a fourth-quarter interception to seal the victory.

Tampa Bay faced its biggest deficit early in the final period when Rodgers ran for a 12-yard touchdown on a third-and-goal play, splitting several defenders at the goal line. However, Smith followed that with his 83-yard return, his third of at least 72 yards in just 16 NFL games, and turned that into a seven-yard TD pass to Kellen Winslow.

The Bucs defense then forced a punt and Freeman promptly directed an eight-play, 72-yard TD drive to give the Bucs their first lead. The biggest play of the drive was a 29-yard catch by WR Michael Clayton, who adjusted to an underthrown ball and made a diving catch at the 13. The Bucs faced a fourth-and-goal at the seven with four minutes to play and Morris elected to go for it. Freeman lofted a beautiful pass in the back right corner of the end zone to rookie WR Sammie Stroughter, who made a leaping catch and got two feet down.

Morris never considered kicking the field goal to bring his team within two points.

“That was a no-brainer for me,” he said. “I was out there playing for a win. This win was for everybody, from the bottom of the organization to the top. Everybody worked hard for this day.”

Freeman was only sacked once, and he had help from a series of big plays of the sort Clayton made on the winning drive. Winslow caught four passes for 57 yards and a score, RB Derrick Ward gained 54 yards and a touchdown on three grabs and WR Maurice Stovall, starting in place of the injured Antonio Bryant, caught three passes for 46 yards.

“You’ve seen some people step up,” said Morris. “You’ve seen some great plays from Maurice Stovall and Kellen Winslow. Michael Clayton made a big play downfield. We had some things that we missed, but overall you could tell that this team wants to win. They play hard every week.”

A two-point conversion catch by Clayton gave the Bucs a three-point lead, and the defense, which got four of its six sacks in the final period, forced a quick punt. Tampa Bay was prepared to go for it on fourth-and-one from the Green Bay 31 before a false start penalty, but then elected to punt on fourth-and-six. Four plays later, Jackson intercepted a deflected pass and returned it 35 yards for the game’s final points.

Smith’s momentum-changing return was just one of a string of big plays by the Bucs’ special teams. After Green Bay took an early 7-0 lead, LB Geno Hayes blocked a first quarter punt and Barber returned it 31 yards for yet another score in his illustrious career. Smith finished the game with 161 combined return yards, Dirk Johnson dropped two punts inside the 20 and new kicker Connor Barth made a 38-yard field goal. Smith kept the Packers in terrible field position late in the fourth quarter with a 22-yard punt return.

“They’ve been doing it the whole year – blocked punts, returned kicks,” said Morris of the Bucs’ special teams. “It was special, they were special. Those guys play passionate, they define our team, they’re our muscle, our driving force.”

Tampa Bay’s pass-rush had its most inspired game, with eight different players cycling in throughout the game. DE Stylez G. White led the way with 1.5 sacks and was joined in his sacking efforts by Chris Hovan, Tim Crowder, Roy Miller, Michael Bennett and Ryan Sims. The Bucs also picked Rodgers off three times, one more than the Green Bay passer had thrown in his first seven games combined. Rodgers had a hot hand early but finished the game with a 57.6 passer rating and a sub-50% completion percentage (17 of 35).

The first half was a furious exchange of touchdowns, though Green Bay dominated early in statistical terms. The Packers’ offense had 233 yards by halftime while the Bucs had produced 166. The Packers’ edge was larger midway through the second quarter, but several key stops at midfield and one final drive before the break made it more even.

Still, Tampa Bay remained very much in it, rallying to tie the game twice and nearly a third time before intermission. Green Bay scored on its second play from scrimmage, a 74-yard Rodgers pass to WR James Jones on which Mack had decent coverage but couldn’t quite get a hand in the way of the pass. Mack fell trying to break up the throw, leaving Jones to jog easily the length of the field.

Mack atoned for that play almost immediately, intercepting Rodgers’ next pass as he peeled off his man and stepped in front of a throw intended for Donald Driver. Mack ran his pick back 36 yards to the Green Bay eight, setting up a six-yard Freeman TD pass to Ward two plays later.

Green Bay used a more methodical method to produce its next touchdown, as Ryan Grant powered an 11-play, 69-yard drive. Grant’s 20-yard run put the ball into Buccaneer territory and the third-year back finished it with a two-yard scoring run on a draw play.

The Bucs responded with a fine drive into Green Bay territory, keyed by Ward’s 38-yard catch, but Barth missed a 45-yard field goal attempt. Fortunately, the Bucs’ next special teams play was much better, as Hayes blocked a Jeremy Kapinos punt attempt and Barber returned it 31-yards for the game-tying score.

Green Bay would grab the lead again before halftime, however. Following Barber’s score, Rodgers led the visitors on an eight-play, 76-yard touchdown drive. Rodgers converted the only third down of the possession himself, escaping a near-sack and scrambling around the left end for seven yards on a third-and-six. Rodgers then finished the march with a 32-yard pass to Driver, who fooled the Bucs’ defense with an in-and-out move on the right sideline.

Tampa Bay didn’t match that score before the break, but its defense came up with two critical stops on drives starting near midfield, denying Green Bay the chance to pad its lead. The Packers’ punt after the last stop rolled to a stop at the Bucs’ six with 2:33 to play, but the home team did not choose to merely run out the time. Freeman completed two passes to Stovall for 33 yards, scrambled for 11 yards and a key first down and converted a third-and-10 with an 11-yard strike to Winslow. The drive resulted in Barth’s 38-yarder, making it 21-17.

The second half started off well for the Buccaneers as kickoff return man Tramon Williams muffed the opening kick and then could get no further than his own four. Two plays later, the pocket collapsed on Rodgers and White sacked him near the goal line for what appeared to be a safety. The officials placed the ball about a foot outside the end zone, and a Buccaneer challenge failed to overturn the ruling. Still, that made it third-and-13 and a pass to FB John Kuhn over the middle gained just seven. The Packers had to punt and return man Clifton Smith got it back inside Green Bay territory, to the 48.

A defensive holding penalty on Green Bay gifted the Bucs five yards and a new first down, but a failed trick play cost the Bucs six yards when Smith’s pass back to Freeman sailed over his head and out of bounds. Freeman had good protection on third-and-13 but couldn’t quite connect with Clayton deep over the middle. The resulting punt went into the end zone.

A pair of Grant runs produced 12 yards and a first down but Bennett sacked Rodgers for a loss of five on the next play. A 10-yard strike underneath to Driver set up third-and-five, and Jennings ran a perfect fade-stop on the next play for a first down at the Bucs’ 42. On the next play, Rodgers ran a play-action and looked deep over the middle to Jennings. Three Buccaneer defenders converged and the ball eventually popped into the air, where it was intercepted at the one by CB Aqib Talib. Talib returned the ball to the 16 before he was leveled by Driver.

Two runs by Williams gained nine yards and set up third-and-one. The Bucs ran a play-action pass to FB Earnest Graham on third down but the ball was dropped and a punt followed. Grant gave the Packers 11 yards on two runs but was then trapped for a loss of two on first down by Hayes. CB Torrie Cox then dropped TE Donald Lee on a short pass and the Bucs forced a punt that Smith fair caught at the 11.

Freeman scrambled for five yards and Ward got three up the middle to set up third-and-two. Freeman tried to convert it with a long out to Stroughter on the right sideline but CB Jarrett Bush cut in front to knock it away. The Bucs punted again and Green bay started again at their own 38. A play-action pass to Driver picked up 16 yards, putting the ball four yards into Buc territory, and RB Ahman Green found a seam two plays later for a gain of 28. That play ended the third quarter.

The Bucs’ defense forced Green Bay into a third-and-10 but Rodgers escaped a near-sack and threw on the run to Jones for a first down at the Bucs’ seven. Miller’s sack on second down made it third-and-goal from the 12 but Rodgers had the last laugh, turning a broken play into a gritty, 12-yard touchdown run.

Special teams got the Bucs right back into it, as Smith dashed through the Green Bay coverage for that 83-yard return of the ensuing kickoff. Smith beat the kicker near midfield and then cut back inside two tacklers near the Packers’ 40 to extend the runback before he was tackled at the 17. A 10-yard catch by Ward put the Bucs inside the 10 and Freeman put them in the end zone two plays later with a scrambling, seven-yard TD pass to Winslow. The Bucs went for two to try to pull within three, but Winslow couldn’t quite haul in a short pass in traffic at the front of the end zone.

A touchback by Barth pushed the Packers back to their 20 but Grant ripped off a pair of six-yard runs for a first down. A nine-yard run by Green moved the sticks again, out to the Green Bay 45. Three plays later, on third-and-five from midfield, Rodgers tried to hit TE Spencer Havner over the middle but it was incomplete. A short punt and Smith’s 10-yard return got the ball back to Tampa Bay’s 28.

Freeman started the drive marvelously with a 22-yard strike to Winslow, impressively fitting the ball in between three defenders. Freeman’s next pass, intended for Winslow, was intercepted by Hawk, but the Packer linebacker was flagged for illegal contact, making it first down at the Green Bay 45. The Bucs fell into a third-and-seven from there but converted when Clayton adjusted impressively to an underthrown ball and made a diving, 29-yard catch to the 13.

From there, Williams dashed up the middle for a gain of six to the seven. A swing pass to Williams didn’t work, and Clayton couldn’t quite stay inbounds on a pass in the back of the end zone. On fourth down, Stroughter started in on a quick fade and then dashed back to the right corner, where Freeman lobbed the perfect pass for a go-ahead touchdown. Freeman then hit Clayton in the back of the end zone for the two-point conversion that made it 31-28.

Barth then kicked the ensuing kickoff out of the end zone for a touchback with 4:14 to play. On first down, Sims got to Rodgers for a sack of seven yards. After an 11-yard catch by Jones, the Packers committed a holding penalty to make it third-and-16 from the 14. With outstanding coverage downfield, Rodgers ran around for awhile but was eventually dropped for a sack of no yards by Crowder. Smith then cut across the field for a 19-yard return of the ensuing punt, back to Green Bay’s 40.

With just over two minutes to play, the Bucs kept it on the ground. Williams’ four-yard run brought on the two-minute warning. Freeman briefly fumbled the snap on the next play but managed to get off a handoff to Williams for two more yards. Green Bay called the first of its three timeouts with 1:54 to play, and Tampa Bay facing a third-and-four at the 34. Williams gained three yards on third down, making it fourth-and-one with 1:48 left after Green Bay’s second timeout. Knowing a single yard would seal the victory, the Bucs went for it after using their final timeout to talk it over. Unfortunately, after the break, G Jeremy Zuttah false-started and the Bucs had to punt. Johnson’s kick was downed at the 13 with 1:35 to play.

Jones dropped Rodgers’ first-down pass and White sacked Rodgers back at the four on second down. An underneath pass to Jones got the ball back to the 10, setting up fourth-and-12 with 52 seconds to play. Green Bay used its final timeout, then Rodgers tried to throw down the left hashmarks to Driver. The ball deflected off the Packer receiver and into the waiting arms of Jackson, who proceeded to weave through traffic for a 35-yard game-clinching score.

Green Bay got the ball back one more time and did manage to get into Buccaneer territory, but never came close to scoring. The Packers dropped to 4-4 with the loss.

Game Notes: The Buccaneers and Packers have now met 51 times in the regular season with the Packers holding a 29-21-1 edge. Tampa Bay has won eight of the last 12 meetings, including three in a row. The Bucs are 14-12-1 all-time at home against Green Bay, including 7-1 at Raymond James Stadium. … The Bucs have had very good success against all of their former NFC Central foes since the league was realigned in 2002 and Tampa Bay went to the NFC South. Since 2002, Tampa Bay is 13-4 combined against Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota. … CB Elbert Mack’s interception off QB Aaron Rodgers in the first quarter was the first of his two-year NFL career. … LB Geno Hayes’ blocked punt in the second quarter was the first by a Buccaneer since December 14, 2008, when Brian Clark pulled off the feat against Atlanta’s Michael Koenen. Ronde Barber recovered the loose ball and ran it 31 yards for a touchdown, the first time a Buccaneer had run a blocked punt back for a score since Hayes did it himself against Carolina on October 12, 2008. Hayes also blocked the kick that led to that return. … Rookie DE Michael Bennett recorded his first career sack in the third quarter. … Green Bay RB Ahman Green, recently re-signed, became the Packers’ all-time leading rusher with his two-yard carry midway through the fourth period. Green surpassed the 8,207 yards gained by Jim Taylor. … QB Josh Freeman threw three touchdown passes in his starting debut, marking the most scoring throws by a Buccaneer rookie in any game in team history. … The Buccaneers won after trailing at one point by 11 points, 28-17. That marks the first time the team has rallied from a deficit of 10 or more points to win since beating Detroit, 38-20, on November 23, 2008.

Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive prior to Sunday’s game: WR Yamon Figurs, CB Mike Mickens, FB Chris Pressley, G Shawn Murphy, T James Lee, WR Antonio Bryant, DT Dre Moore and designated third quarterback Byron Leftwich. Bryant was out due to injury.

The Packers deactivated these eight men: WR Jake Allen, S Derrick Martin, FB Korey Hall, LB Brandon Chillar, T Breno Giacomini, WR Jordy Nelson, TE Jermichael Finley and DE Jarius Wynn. Allen, Martin, Hall, Chillar, Nelson and Finley were out due to injury.

Injuries: For the Buccaneers, S Will Allen suffered a sprained thumb in the second quarter and did not return. DE Stylez G. White sustained a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter but was able to return.

For the Packers, T Mark Tauscher sustained a knee injury in the third quarter and did not return. LB Aaron Kampman suffered a head injury in the fourth quarter and did not return.

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