HOUSTON — One of the biggest developments involving the Buccaneers on Thursday night occurred before the opening kickoff at Reliant Stadium.
About 90 minutes before the preseason finale against the Texans, QB Josh Freeman hooked up with WR Sammie Stroughter on a pass of about 30 yards.
The pass was one of about 70 Freeman threw in his most extensive test of his broken right (throwing) thumb since the injury occurred Aug. 21. Freeman went through a rigorous warm-up and didn't appear to be dealing with pain, a good sign considering the Bucs are counting on him to start the season opener at home against Cleveland on Sept. 12.
"He looked awesome," coach Raheem Morris said. "He was out there winging the ball around pretty good."
The Bucs have maintained that they were never too concerned that the thumb wouldn't heal enough to allow Freeman to play against the Browns. What was expected to complicate the issue was the pain expected when the second-year player put his thumb under stress, as he did Thursday. Based on Freeman's ability to throw with force and precision, that did not seem to be a problem.
The next step for Freeman is to return to practice. The team is off today. It goes through a walkthrough Saturday.
BETWEEN THE LINES: The Bucs haven't clarified what they plan to do at cornerback in the opener, when Aqib Talib serves a league-imposed one-game suspension for an altercation with a cab driver last year. But the events of Thursday offered a clue.
Second-year CB E.J. Biggers started opposite Elbert Mack but played briefly. The starters who did play, including Biggers, were out of the game by the end of the first defensive series. Mack played well into the second quarter with the reserves.
Rookie Myron Lewis is a factor, but he might need a little more time after missing most of the preseason with a hamstring injury.
Biggers said he looks forward to the opportunity if it comes.
"Whatever the challenge is, I'm up for it," he said.
UPS, DOWNS: Lewis had an up-and-down night that will serve as a learning experience for the third-round draft pick from Vanderbilt.
In the third quarter, he batted away a pass in the end zone intended for Dorin Dickerson while locked in single coverage. But two plays later on the same route, he yielded a 32-yard touchdown pass from John David Booty to Bobby Williams.
Lewis added a pass deflection later in the third quarter, just missing an interception. But in the fourth, he committed a personal foul on a punt.
HUGGINS STARTS: Kareem Huggins, who got a promotion to No. 2 running back when Derrick Ward was cut Tuesday, started as Cadillac Williams sat out. Huggins rushed for 37 yards on six carries, an average of 6.2 yards per carry.
LAST CHANCE: KR/RB Clifton Smith, in a fight for a roster spot, saw his most extensive action of the preseason after being limited by knee pain that sidelined him for the first two games.
Smith struggled as a runner, gaining 3 yards on seven carries. But he was resourceful as a receiver, positioning himself underneath as a check-down option and catching three passes for 22 yards.
The ability of Smith to make tacklers miss in the open field is why he was once considered a good option as a third-down back.
The emergence of Micheal Spurlock as an option in the return game and as a receiver has made Smith, a Pro Bowl return man as a rookie in 2008, less of a necessity.
"It's the NFL," he said. "They're going to make their decision one way or another, and I've got to live with it. I gave it my all, and I gave everything I have on the field."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.