TAMPA — Offensive coordinator Greg Olson says the standard he has set for the Bucs is at least eight explosive plays per game. That's defined by a run of at least 15 yards or a pass of 20 yards or more.
But nothing can create a bigger blast than the bomb, perfectly launched from the right arm of quarterback Josh Freeman.
Five players have been successfully targeted to catch a pass of 40 yards or more, the most in the NFC.
"First, it's been good play-calling," Freeman said. "When you call a shot play, it's very seldom you get the shot by chance. Each play is designed to beat a certain coverage, and that's how you get a guy running one-on-one or running free down the field. Coach Olson does a great job throughout the week and when we get to Sundays of determining what coverage they're going to be in to a certain set, to a certain formation and dialing up the right shot play.
"Then after that, it's just throw and catch."
At the midway point of the season, the Bucs have 26 completions of 20 yards or more, a pace that would produce 52 by year's end. Indeed, the long-range missile had been misplaced for years in Tampa Bay.
From 2000 to 2009, the Bucs averaged 37 receptions of at least 20 yards per season, so they are on schedule to obliterate that mark.
Then again, the Bucs didn't bring the 6-foot-6, 248-pound Freeman to Tampa Bay to dink and dunk.
"It just sucks the energy out of the defense when you make those big, explosive plays," rookie receiver Arrelious Benn said. "It's pretty big for the offense. It gives you a lot of composure to go out there and make those plays every week."
But shot plays don't just happen. They are carefully scripted to work against certain defensive fronts.
"Some of it is a sight adjust where a wide receiver may have a route called, but once the receiver recognizes the blitz, he adjusts his route," Olson said. "That's called sight adjustment. The second one, obviously, is a built in hot (route). So nobody changes the route and you tell the quarterback, you have a built in hot. Then if we don't have a sight adjustment or built-in hot, obviously the quarterback has the option to hand signal outside and get himself some protection."
Take last week's game against the Falcons. With the Bucs trailing 17-7 late in the first half, the Falcons showed an all-out blitz with no deep safeties, or what is known as Cover Zero. Freeman correctly read the coverage and signaled for rookie Mike Williams to run a slant against cornerback Dunta Robinson.
Freeman's pass hit Williams in stride, and the fourth-round pick outran everyone to the end zone for a 58-yard touchdown, his fifth score of the season.
"What Mike did there was above and beyond," Freeman said. "Really, you know they're bringing one more than they can block, and you just want to find a way to get the ball out, avoid a negative play and just put the ball in play.
"He's one of those guys I feel like any time I give him a route, he's going to find a way to win on it."
In fact, it's that kind of trust that Freeman has in Williams, Benn and his other young receivers that has set the Bucs apart in terms of throwing the ball down the field this season.
Many of Freeman's bombs have come as the result of action, such as the deep passes to Williams and Benn at Arizona two weeks ago. But Freeman is under strict instructions not to overthrow receivers on shot plays.
"I think a big part of what we've been trying to sell to these players is what we call opportunity balls," Olson said. "That is we've said we'll rip (into Josh) if he doesn't give you a chance to make a play on the ball. We don't want to see the overthrown ball. By the same token, if that ball is underthrown and he gives you an opportunity to make the play, you've got to make the play, and if you don't, it's got to be incomplete.
"Don't worry so much about hitting them in perfect stride. You just can't overthrow them in those situations."
A good example of why came late in the game at Atlanta. The Bucs ran a flea-flicker play in which running back Cadillac Williams faked a run before pitching the ball back to Freeman, who launched one deep toward Benn.
The ball was underthrown, but Benn worked his way back toward it and drew a 33-yard pass interference penalty on Falcons safety William Moore.
"Obviously, you'd love to see him hit him in stride and the game be over on that play," Olson said. "But an overthrow kills you. We got the (pass interference). The key is when you see the backs of the numbers of the defensive back on our receiver, that becomes an opportunity, you give him a chance to make a play on the ball.
"You may get a (pass interference) if he's a good receiver, like (Benn), because he gave the defensive back a chance to run up his back and now you get the call."
Consider this: Williams leads all rookie receivers in catches (36), receiving yards (559) and touchdowns (five). Benn, a rookie from Illinois, caught his first NFL touchdown at Atlanta. Imagine the bombs when Freeman has a season or two to build more chemistry with his wideouts.
"I think the key is us being on the same page with Josh when Josh is kind of getting a feel with his receivers," receiver Micheal Spurlock said. "Most of the teams that we've played figure the receivers aren't that good, they're young, this and that. They're just going to blitz. We've got to make them pay for that. Lately, we've been cutting them up pretty good."
Rick Stroud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.