Thursday, March 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Scenes from Denver: Josh Freeman feels the pressure. Leonard Johnson feels picked on. Von Miller just feels good.

Playoff picture murkier

Making the playoffs isn't out of the question for the Bucs. But Sunday's events didn't help their chances.

Their loss at Denver, coupled with the Seattle's thrilling overtime win in Chicago, left Tampa Bay one game behind the Seahawks (7-5) in the race for the final NFC wildcard berth.

The Vikings, who also are in the race, lost to the Packers and are tied with the Bucs at 6-6 (although the Bucs own the tiebreaker by virtue of their head-to-head victory).

And there's another possible variable, too. The Redskins (5-6) play tonight against the Giants and could put themselves in position to make a run at postseason, too. Washington would own the tiebreaker with the Bucs because of its head-to-head victory over Tampa Bay.

The Bucs' remaining games are against the Eagles, Saints, Rams and Falcons, and the margin for error now is smaller.

"We have a lot of football left to be played," QB Josh Freeman said. "We are, right now, a game out. We're just focused on the next game, focused on getting ready for the Eagles. I know everybody can't wait to get back in the building, watch this game, evaluate, try to learn and try and grow."

Freeman picked for six

There might not have been a bigger play in Sunday's game than LB Von Miller's interception and 26-yard touchdown return in the third quarter.

With the Bucs already trying to mitigate the damage done by two Peyton Manning touchdown passes earlier in the quarter, QB Josh Freeman, while absorbing a hit from DT Mitch Unrein, tried to throw downfield to WR Vincent Jackson, who was running a go route but hardly seemed open.

"I thought I had a window to stick it in there, but it didn't play out," Freeman said. "The type of swing pick-sixes are, from a momentum standpoint, from a points standpoint, it's tough to overcome."

Miller's version was as follows: "It was just a basic zone-drop for us. I was able to drop back and I think Josh saw me at the last second. I was able to get my hands on it and get into the end zone. Great blocking by my teammates, too."

In the backfield, Freeman was under duress from Unrein, who had a rather easy path to the quarterback.

"Actually, nobody even blocked me, so I had a free run to the quarterback," he said. "Luckily, I got a little pressure on him. I don't know if that caused him to throw it to Von or not."

The play put the Bucs three scores behind, 28-10, and proved the beginning of the end.

No fooling Peyton

The Bucs knew it was probably an unreasonable objective. After all, you don't exactly fool Peyton Manning. You can make him think, or make him second guess himself. But usually, Manning figures you out.

Despite the Bucs' best efforts on Sunday, Manning overcame their strategies.

"We did a lot of different things on defense today," S Ronde Barber said. "... But the guy has been doing this a long time. There's not much he hasn't seen or can't figure out. I give him a lot of credit."

Among the tricks the Bucs used was a particularly interesting one. While Manning makes numerous changes and calls at the line of scrimmage, the Bucs, rather than react to them, decided to stand pat until after the ball was snapped. The idea, players said, was to not tip off their coverages and blitzes before the snap.

"I think it helped a little," LB Lavonte David said. "He's like a machine out there. So we tried to just play it cool."

The Bucs tried a variety of blitzes, too, none of which had a major effect. They didn't register a sack or even an official quarterback hit. Manning's trademark quick release plus his ability to throw passes with great anticipation made pressuring him nearly impossible.

"With the way he throws the ball, he's getting the ball out quick," DT Gerald McCoy said. "He doesn't hold the ball. ... He is who he is. I'll just credit him."

And among the biggest challenges when facing Manning is the breakneck pace at which he conducts the offense, often racing up to the line of scrimmage to catch defenders out of position and prevent defensive substitutions.

"I actually thought we handled it pretty well in the first half," Barber said. "But it's difficult. Obviously we're trying to substitute and he's not letting you substitute. He has his plays and most of their stuff is checked at the line of scrimmage anyway because he's comfortable doing that. We're trying to play that chess game with him and it's not as easy as it may seem."

Hit parade on Freeman

The stat sheet will reflect that Josh Freeman was sacked just one time by the Broncos. His aching body this morning will tell him the toll was much greater.

Freeman was on the run from the Broncos' stout defensive front, finishing 18 of 39 for 242 yards and an interception.

"We knew coming in that they've done that to everybody," coach Greg Schiano said. "That's where our line was struggling. They (the Broncos) are really productive. ... They made a couple plays that certainly hurt us for sure."

The score only compounded the problems. When the Broncos had a breakout third quarter, scoring 21 points to take a 28-10 lead, it forced the Bucs to throw more regularly, which played to the Broncos' strength.

"Once you make it a one-dimensional game, they have a lot of athletes out there that can get to the quarterback," G Jeremy Zuttah said.

Not that Freeman let it affect his mindset.

"Josh always deals with it," Zuttah said. "He's never going to cry about the pressure. He's always (saying), 'Come on, guys, let's make a play' and we try to play through it together."

The offensive line injuries seem to be catching up with the Bucs. But the Broncos' talent might have shined regardless.

"The hype these guys get is well deserved," Freeman said. "They get after it."

Martin held in check (again)

A week after being held to his lowest per-carry average of the season (2.4 yards) against the Falcons, Bucs rookie RB Doug Martin had another uninspiring performance at Denver.

Martin rushed for 56 yards on 18 carries (3.1 yards per carry), well below the 95.5 yards per game he was averaging entering Sunday.

Like the Falcons, the Broncos made stopping Martin a top priority and succeeded in doing so. Because he's been the talk of the league recently after record-setting performances, Martin now is a focus of opposing defenses and they're cooking up strategies to limit him.

"I think it was more scheme today," Martin said. "I think they seemed to have a better scheme than us."

That, plus Denver has an underrated defense that ranked ninth against the run entering the game. The Broncos defensive line, led by DE Von Miller, made life tough on Martin with its penetration.

Martin wasn't the least bit surprised. Miller was one of his offseason training partners in California.

"They have great athletes," Martin said. "I trained with Von Miller over the summer and he's just a freak. You have to really give respect to that defense and how they played."

Long day for Leonard

The Bucs never figured undrafted rookie CB Leonard Johnson would be lining up opposite Atlanta's Julio Jones one week and Broncos star Demaryius Thomas the next.

But injuries, roster moves and suspensions have reduced the Tampa Bay secondary to shambles, so Johnson had another tall order on his hands Sunday.

And during a particular third-quarter series, Johnson came up particularly short in the matchup, allowing a 13-yard completion, committing a 16-yard pass interference infraction and yielding an 8-yard touchdown pass — all against Thomas — in a span of five plays.

Johnson was especially disappointed in the interference call because he actually had adequate coverage.

"I don't know that I would do anything really different," he said. "But when the ball is in the air, when it's a big-body (receiver), I have to put myself in a position where I don't get boxed out. That's pretty much how that went."

Thomas, 6-3 and 229 pounds, was a physical challenge for the 5-10, 202-pound Johnson. But on the touchdown, Johnson was in perfect position. But so, too, was Peyton Manning's laser of a pass thrown before Thomas even came out of his final cut.

"I was right in position," Johnson said. "That's just Peyton. Nothing I could have done better. I think even (Thomas) was kind of shocked."

Sullivan linked to new job

Offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan was linked to the vacant Boston College coaching job in a report that aired Sunday on ESPN.

Sullivan was not available for comment after the Bucs loss, and coach Greg Schiano declined to address the matter.

"That kind of stuff I keep private with my assistant coaches and our organization," Schiano said. "If there's anything to that, that will come out the appropriate way and I don't think this is the place to talk about it."

Boston College fired coach Frank Spaziani last week after the Eagles posted a 2-10 record.

Sullivan would be one of many reported candidates for the job, a list that includes Saints assistants Aaron Kromer and Pete Carmichael.

Quick hits:

— Doug Martin's 1,480 all-purpose yards this season is the most by a rookie in Bucs history (surpassing Warrick Dunn's 1,440 in 1997).

— With two more TD passes Sunday, Josh Freeman now has 74 for his career, second in team history behind only Vinny Testaverde's 77 (1987-'92).

— Connor Barth now has six field goals of 50 yards or more this season (hitting from 50 and 55 Sunday), the most in single season in team history. His 55 yarder ties as the fourth longest by a Buccaneer.

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