TAMPA — Considering the number of rules and regulations passed to protect NFL quarterbacks, air travel has never been safer.
But twice in the past two games, Josh Freeman's biggest plays came on the ground after he tucked the football under his arm, lowered his head and risked the kind of bell-ringing, clock-cleaning collision that doctors and scientists warn about.
There was the crash of helmets with Atlanta safety William Moore when Freeman gained enough yards to pick up a first down and preserve a 16-13 win over the Falcons. Late in the fourth quarter Monday night, he legged out a 7-yard run on third and 6 near midfield against Indianapolis, diving to set up LeGarrette Blount's winning touchdown run.
At 6 feet 6 and blessed with a strong arm, Freeman is never going to be known as a running quarterback. But last season, only the Eagles' Michael Vick had more rushing yardage among quarterbacks.
In fact, 12 of Freeman's 23 rushing attempts for 104 yards this season have resulted in first downs, and two others were touchdowns.
"He's elusive, he's big, he's giant," coach Raheem Morris said. "He looks like he's lumbering. But he's pulled away from people when he starts to open up that stride. The other day, the best play of the game was that third-and-6 scramble after we jumped offside. He broke a tackle and dove about 7 yards, it seemed like, to get the first down.
"He embraces the hits. He gets up and throws down first-down signs, and he hurts people when they try to hit him."
Moore wasn't penalized or fined for his hit on Freeman, but it left some cobwebs to be cleaned.
"Of course I felt it," Freeman said. "We're not allowed to comment on the officials. It's fortunate we got the first down." It's not that Freeman would prefer to run with the football than throw it. "But I'm good at it," he said.
While ranking as the team's second-leading ball carrier with a 4.5-yard rushing average, Freeman said he is careful to diagnose which defense is best to run against.
"I'd say there are a few situations where you do run the ball," he said. "Obviously, if there's a called play. Then there's the play where you do recognize the coverage where it's man-to-man they've got the rush lanes. You're going to take a peek downfield, but in the back of your mind, you've got to know if you get a good running lane and the coverage is tight downfield that you've got to take off.
"The other way is just kind of instincts. Dropping back, going through your progressions, the rush starts flowing around you, you see a lane, it just kind of pops and you know you can go and get some yardage out of it."
Backup quarterback Josh Johnson, who is known for his athleticism, said Freeman isn't nearly as elusive in practice.
"He's a lot more athletic than people give him credit for. I think it might be a game thing," Johnson said. "You see him on the practice field and Free is not that fast. But on Sundays, man, he turns into another guy. I think a lot of it has to do with his competitiveness."
Johnson said Freeman's scrambling ability is changing how teams defend the Bucs, either by incorporating a linebacker to "spy" on Freeman or by not playing as many two deep safeties in coverage.
"Very Ben Roethlisberger-like, a physically strong man," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Josh Freeman and coffee kind of make me nervous."
Watching Freeman run has quickened the heartbeat of Morris and his coaches, who have encouraged him to slide and avoid unnecessary contact. But without those feats afoot, Tampa Bay might not still be on a collision course with the post-season.
"My mentality when I'm running is that I want to get as many yards as possible," Freeman said. "I mean, as of late, it's been about getting first downs. And when it comes to getting a first down or sliding short, I'm going to go for the first down every time.
"It's been put in my ear many times by many different people to slide, get down, it's a long season. So I'm going to start taking heed to their word."