TAMPA — Bucs QB Josh Freeman took an important step toward returning from his broken right thumb when he gripped and briefly threw a football over the weekend.
Working with team trainers, Freeman conducted the test Sunday, giving coach Raheem Morris enough confidence to let him watch practice Monday.
Morris had prohibited Freeman from attending practice since the starting quarterback was injured Aug. 22 against the Chiefs.
"He's progressing nicely, and we like where he is," Morris said. "I trust him enough to go on the field this week. Everything is going the right way for him. I don't know what's the projection date for him to be back (to) full-time practice. But he's progressing nicely, and everything's on schedule as they thought."
Freeman said Saturday that he continues to be optimistic that he'll play in the regular-season opener Sept. 12 against Cleveland. The Bucs have maintained that timeline.
Morris said three other players will miss Thursday's preseason finale at Houston: G Davin Joseph (hip flexor), S Sabby Piscitelli (concussion) and WR Maurice Stovall (ankle), all of whom did not practice.
Morris emphasized several times that none of the injuries is considered serious enough to keep any of those players out of the opener.
Stovall might be the most affected. He hasn't played since the preseason opener at Miami and will miss his third straight game. At the very least, it seems clear he has lost his grip on the starting receiver position.
Rusty in return: RB Clifton Smith fumbled on his first touch this preseason, losing control on a kick return Saturday against the Jaguars.
Given Smith's history of fumbles at critical moments, Morris was asked what, if anything, Smith's less-than-stellar debut said about his future. Smith is battling for a roster spot despite his status as one of the league's best return men.
"You have to expect a little bit of that when a ballcarrier doesn't practice," Morris said.
Smith has been out for most of the preseason with a case of gout, inflammation centering near his knee.
"You see it every year in camp," Morris added. " … It happens to some of the best running backs in this league. Clifton is no different and no exception. When you don't go out and carry the ball and handle the ball every day in practice and prepare for the game, you potentially set yourself up for a disastrous play. He's just got to get back in the football groove."
My fault: Morris took the blame for the defense yielding a late score to Jacksonville just before halftime. The Jags drove 49 yards on 11 plays in 1 minute, 50 seconds to kick a 43-yard field goal with one second remaining.
"If it wasn't for me playing too soft on the two-minute drive, we might have held them to three points (in the half)," Morris said.
The drive was yielded by the first-team defense, but Morris had his secondary playing deep.
What blackout?: LB Quincy Black has made a case for being the best Bucs defender this preseason. Morris has been effusive in his praise of Black during the offseason and training camp. Black had seven tackles against the Jaguars, giving him a team-best 14 this preseason. He had a sack in the previous game against the Chiefs.
"Black and that rush that we had going really caused some problems for them and made guys like (David) Garrard and Luke (McCown) use their legs and that's what you want to see," Morris said.
Times staff writer Rick Stroud contributed to this report. Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.