TAMPA — Josh Freeman proved Saturday night against the Dolphins that he still does his best work with the clock winding down.
That might be good because time is quickly running out on the Bucs quarterback getting the offense tuned up for the regular season.
Freeman looked out of synch until directing a tying 54-yard touchdown drive over the final two minutes of the first half.
With the Bucs trailing 10-3 with 2:09 remaining in the second quarter, Freeman, running a no-huddle offense, completed three passes and scrambled for 17 yards to set up Earnest Graham's 2-yard touchdown run.
The Bucs won 17-13 when third-string quarterback Rudy Carpenter connected on a 7-yard touchdown to tight end Nathan Overbay with 3:11 left. It was a much better performance overall for the Bucs than their 31-14 defeat to the Patriots on Aug. 19.
And coach Raheem Morris said his offense still has time to start clicking before the Sept. 11 opener at home against the Lions.
"We keep saying to start fast, but they've thrown that out the window," Morris said. "I'm just going to let these guys finish fast like they've been doing. They kind of got going with that two-minute drive late in the second quarter.
"They'll be doing all those things they've got to do to get ready for Detroit. Whether or not I think we have enough time to do it or not, it doesn't matter. It's coming. Detroit's bags are packed."
Freeman, who led five fourth-quarter comebacks last season, spent most of Saturday firing wildly to his receivers, finishing 12-of-23 for 149 yards before giving way to Josh Johnson in the third quarter.
His longest pass was in the air for only a few seconds, but running back LeGarrette Blount turned it into a 52-yard gain.
While the quarterback rushed for a score at Kansas City in the preseason opener, he has yet to connect with a receiver in the end zone.
It's not as if he will get a chance in Thursday's preseason finale at Washington, when the Bucs are expected to rest their starters
"I missed a couple throws," Freeman said. "But that comes with getting more and more game reps and getting more into a rhythm. It's nothing to really be concerned about. It felt good as an offense to be out there going through our standard operating procedures."
The defense, which yielded four touchdowns to the Patriots in the first half, fared much better against the Dolphins.
It put plenty of pressure on starting quarterback Chad Henne, end Michael Bennett and tackle Frank Okam notching sacks.
The only thing the Bucs didn't do well was cover receiver Brandon Marshall.
On his third play of the game, Henne launched a pass down the right sideline to Marshall, who beat cornerback E.J. Biggers then made safety Cody Grimm miss for a 60-yard touchdown.
Marshall also drew pass interference penalties on Biggers and cornerback Myron Lewis, who missed the first two preseason games with a hamstring injury.
Biggers made the hustle play of the night late in the first half. After getting beat by Marshall for a 30-yard completion from Henne, Biggers caught the receiver from behind and forced a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Geno Hayes.
That's the spark Freeman and the offense needed. After completions to Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams, Graham turned a screen pass into a 15-yard gain.
Then Freeman was flushed out of the pocket and high-stepped his way for a 17-yard gain.
On the next play, Graham took an inside handoff and walked into the end zone to tie it at 10 with 25 seconds left in the second quarter.
It was a mixed bag for the defense.
Henne shredded the secondary by completing 10 of 12 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown to finish the first half with a 146.5 quarterback rating. But the Dolphins were only 1-of-4 on third-down conversions and rushed for only 23 yards.
Bennett, who is holding off second-round pick Da'Quan Bowers to start at left defensive end, had a sack and three tackles for a loss in the first half. Bowers added a sack to start the third quarter.
As always, the focus remains on Freeman. As Morris reminded, his QB broke his thumb in the second preseason game a year ago, so he's ahead of schedule.
"I was pretty happy how he ended up, 12-of-23, close to 50 percent," Morris said. "He hits those couple receivers, and it's a lot higher and he's Drew Brees. He's working to get there."
Rick Stroud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.