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Tampa Bay Buccaneers, QB Josh Freeman struggle in red zone

TAMPA — The Bucs keep checking things off their offensive wish list.

Seeking faster starts, the offense scored 13 first-half points Sunday against the Falcons, its highest this season.

Attempting to regain their offensive identity, the Bucs ran the ball with determination, running back LeGarrette Blount consistently moving the chains.

But Sunday's victory was no offensive masterpiece, particularly because of a facet where the growth has been slower: scoring touchdowns inside the red zone.

The Bucs have reached the opposition's 20-yard line 11 times and have three touchdowns (ranking 31st among 32 teams). Against Atlanta, the Bucs scored a touchdown once in four red zone trips. In the opener against Detroit, the Bucs also went 1-for-4.

"Turnovers in the red zone are unacceptable," said quarterback Josh Freeman, who has been intercepted in the end zone in consecutive games.

"Before, it's been about starting fast, and it's been about being able to put drives together and give our defense some rest," guard Davin Joseph said. "We've improved on that. We're staying on the field longer. We're getting some explosive plays.

"So now it's about getting to the next phase, scoring in the red zone."

Freeman bears much of the blame.

Aside from the two interceptions, he was also called for an illegal forward pass against Atlanta.

Other than being backed up against his own end zone, there arguably isn't a more challenging area for a quarterback to operate than in the red zone's finite space.

And inside Freeman's head, there's a tug-of-war. His coaches stress to guard the football, but they also encourage him to trust his instincts.

"That's a very tough balance for a quarterback," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "The (passing) windows are tighter. We always tell him the decisions have to be made quicker, and they have to be the correct decisions. The sign of a great quarterback, to me, is getting a feel for that and how quickly those windows can close up.

"A good thing and a bad thing is both of those interceptions were (thrown) to (tight end) Kellen (Winslow). He's targeting the right guy in those situations. But his decisions have got to be quicker and made faster and better."

The speed with which decisions must come was reinforced in a third-quarter interception against the Vikings two weeks ago. At the Minnesota 12, Freeman's first passing option was unavailable, so he looked to dump the ball off to his running back (an option that fizzled when two linebackers converged on Blount.)

Finally, Freeman saw an apparent opening. "I looked up and I saw Kellen flash," he said, "but I just got (the ball) out late."

Safety Husain Abdullah snatched the ball before it could reach Winslow, who was streaking toward the back of the end zone.

Ask coach Raheem Morris about his quarterback's red zone struggles and he points out there was another quarterback who threw four interceptions Sunday, two in the red zone: New England's Tom Brady.

Freeman "had six (interceptions) last year, and at this point we have four," Morris said. "He's certainly conscious of it. … They can all throw picks. It's how they respond afterward. One of the greatest quarterbacks of our era threw four (last) weekend. I'm sure he's going to remember and learn from those mistakes.

"Josh Freeman's no different."

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers, QB Josh Freeman struggle in red zone 09/29/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 29, 2011 10:33pm]
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