CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Look deeply into the eyes of a young quarterback such as Josh Freeman, and there is a lot you can learn.
For starters, such as where he's going to throw the darn football.
For the most part, that's all the Panthers needed to do in Sunday's 16-6 win over the Bucs. Freeman's eyes showed determination, fearlessness and the ability to locate receivers all over the field at Bank of America Stadium as he passed for a career-best 321 yards.
But inside the red zone, the Panthers defense read Freeman's eyes as easily as a children's book, resulting in five interceptions, including three inside the 8.
"We did some good things," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "But once we got to the red zone, the windows are tighter. The decisions have to be made faster, but the right decisions have to be made. It can't just be a quick decision. It's got to be the right decision."
Tampa Bay had a season-high 469 total yards of offense and drove inside the Panthers 28 eight times. But thanks to the interceptions and two missed field goals, they came away with just six points.
Freeman, in his sixth game, joined fellow first-round quarterbacks Mark Sanchez of the Jets and Matthew Stafford of the Lions in throwing five interceptions in a game.
"He's going to make mistakes. He's a rookie," center Jeff Faine said. "We have to stick … with the program and let Freeman keep earning his stripes and get a few scars on him. But eventually, those scars will heal."
Not that Freeman didn't have help in dropping the Bucs to 1-11. Connor Barth missed two field goals. The defense dug a 10-0 hole in the first quarter. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood hurt a drive with a personal foul.
And Olson called a play for running back Earnest Graham on third and 1 at the Carolina 3 when Graham wasn't even in the game.
But jeepers, creepers, it's the peepers of Freeman that got him in trouble most of the game.
Specifically, he locked onto receiver Antonio Bryant, who last week complained he wasn't getting the ball enough then made some circus catches Sunday to finish with five for 116 yards.
"I still believe there's a ton of confidence in that kid, and you can hear it from the other players on both sides of the ball," Olson said. "Right to the last horn, they told him, 'You're going to be okay.'
"I believe he'll bounce back. It's a very tough lesson to learn because we were in that game."
Two interceptions by linebacker Jon Beason at or near the goal line illustrated Freeman's struggle.
On the first, the Bucs used a play-action fake to try to freeze the linebackers and hit Bryant in the back of the end zone on a one-man route. But Beason stepped back and into the path of Freeman's throw, intercepting the ball at the goal line.
"Right when I popped up to let it go to Bryant, he just saw it and got his hands on it," Freeman said. "It was a remarkable catch for how hard I threw it."
The next interception came one play after Graham recovered a muffed punt by Chris Gamble at the Carolina 20.
Freeman looked for Bryant in the end zone but failed to look off Beason, who intercepted the ball at the 3.
"There's a fine line between being aggressive and being careless with the football. I just thought we got a little careless," Olson said.
"He's got to be better with his eyes. It's the underneath coverages that the guys need to be aware of. Those are the guys who a lot of times make the interceptions. We had the coverage we were anticipating. Beason was his key. You've got to move Beason with your eyes to hit the seam with Antonio behind it."
Despite Freeman's day, teammates saw enough from the 21-year-old to be encouraged.
"It's definitely painful because you want everything to be good for him because the talent level is there," Graham said. "We all know the type of player, once he comes through this, that he'll be. But growing pains are necessary. We're all here to go through those things with him."
Said running back Cadillac Williams, "Trust me, he's going to be a good one."
Watching Freeman's eyes after the game Sunday, it didn't appear the disappointing game will make him blink.
"It'll be over it by (this) afternoon," Freeman said. "It's blatantly obvious we were inside their 30-yard line eight times and came away with six points the entire game. That's completely unacceptable. It's going to be finding a way to get back to the red zone offense that we were the previous three or four games.
"Guys have been in this league a long time, and guys who throw a lot of picks usually don't last. It's not something I'm going to get down about. It happened."