TAMPA — From the start of his career, quarterback Josh Freeman knew how to finish games.
Freeman is the only player in NFL history to engineer eight fourth-quarter or overtime comebacks in his first two seasons. Two quarterbacks recorded seven comebacks in their first two seasons — Peyton Manning, in 31 games, and Jake Plummer, in 25 games.
But Freeman has lost his knack for the comeback, a reason the Bucs are 4-7 and have lost five straight games, coach Raheem Morris said Monday.
Freeman had two shots to bring the Bucs back in the final three minutes in Sunday's 23-17 loss to the Titans. The first try ended when his pass to Kellen Winslow was intercepted and the other chance was aborted when Freeman fumbled a snap and was stopped for no gain on fourth and 1 from the Titans 25-yard line.
"We've had about, I think, three games right now with the ball in our hands and a chance to take the lead and win," Morris said. "Last year we won those games. We finished the game and Free(man) was the fourth quarter Comeback Kid and we haven't been able to get that this year."
Freeman called his interception a miscommunication with Winslow but said he should not have forced the pass.
"We had our timeouts and we had plenty of time," Freeman said. "It would have been fairly routine for us to drive down, but the turnover made things difficult. That's something that at that point just can't happen."
Freeman isn't the only reason the Bucs haven't closed out games. Tampa Bay's defense is ranked next to last in the NFL, allowing 394.6 yards per game. The Bucs also have the 29th scoring defense, yielding an average of 26.6 points.
When the Bucs have been in the game, the defense has played poorly down the stretch, having allowed 74 points in the final quarter through 11 games. A year ago, opponents scored 63 points in the fourth quarter all season.
Tampa Bay held Titans running back Chris Johnson to 46 rushing yards in the first half. He finished with 190 yards.
"He did a nice job of running the football and staying consistent with his breakout runs," Morris said. "He had one on a breakdown by us. He broke a couple tackles in the second half."
A Bucs breakdown led to the go-ahead touchdown. With Tampa Bay leading 17-13 late in the fourth quarter, the Titans faced fourth and goal at the 2-yard line. Morris said the Bucs faked the blitz and dropped seven into zone coverage. Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck extended the play before firing to receiver Damian Williams in the back of the end zone.
Morris said middle linebacker Mason Foster left his zone to pressure Hasselbeck and safety Sean Jones did not find the receiver he was supposed to cover.
"You go out and grab your man in the zone," Morris said.
It shouldn't have come to that. The Bucs had a chance to pad their lead in the fourth quarter after an 8-yard run by LeGarrette Blount on first down to the Titans 26-yard line. But Winslow was penalized for holding. On the next play, guard Jeremy Zuttah had a false start and then a holding penalty that was declined as the Bucs were forced to punt.
"That has to be avoided," Freeman said. "You're in field-goal range, if your guy beats you, LeGarrette is going to get back to the line of scrimmage. That was a moment in the game where we really needed those points. We just keep shooting ourselves in the foot."
With five games remaining, Morris says the Bucs have to finish better.
"We have to play better," Morris said. "We've got to execute better. We've got to do a better job. Free has to do a better job and we've got to go out there and do a better job executing at the end of games."