MIAMI — Josh Freeman recognized the coverage on Mike Williams, glanced to his right at the rookie receiver — and winked.
Late in the first quarter of the Bucs' 10-7 loss to the Dolphins on Saturday, it was third and 3 from the Miami 43. Williams, the fourth-round pick from Syracuse, was running a clear-out route but told his young quarterback to take a shot if Miami cornerback Vontae Davis was in press coverage.
"He winked at me, and he threw it," Williams said. "I got my feet in bounds, and it felt good getting my first catch."
Freeman just seems to have a different look in his eye this season.
He went 4-of-4 for 53 yards and a touchdown, including that perfectly thrown fade route for 30 yards to Williams. Two plays later, Freeman drifted to his left before hitting his third read, Sammie Stroughter, for a 13-yard touchdown pass.
All during the spring and summer, the Bucs gushed about the blossoming combination of Freeman, 22, and Williams, 23.
Even if you didn't buy the hype, they are a reason to hope.
"Williams is a special player," Bucs center Jeff Faine said. "He's going to be a game-changer, a guy you can depend on to make plays, and he's definitely going to threaten defensive backfields. I'm excited about that draft pick and the potential that he has. Free and him seem to connect and have good conversations together on the field."
Freeman finished with a 158.3 rating, but he was more pleased that the first-team offense did not turn the ball over despite a downpour that turned the infield of Sun Life Stadium into pudding.
"No doubt, it was a good opportunity for me and Mike to go out and connect, and I was happy it was on Vontae," Freeman said. "He was talking a little trash before the game. It was a great opportunity really to showcase Mike more than anything, just his ability to get separation and his overall ability as a wide receiver."
Don't be fooled by the score of preseason games.
When it mattered, the Bucs dominated the Dolphins, picked by many to be a playoff contender.
Tampa Bay did some other good things on offense. Running back Cadillac Williams rushed four times for 21 yards, a healthy 5.3-yard average. They went 2-of-3 on third-down situations and did not turn the ball over despite the sloppy conditions. Tampa Bay held a huge advantage in total yards (99-35), first downs (5-2) and time of possession (9:29-5:31) in the first quarter.
Offensive coordinator Greg Olson was pleased with the new passing combo.
"It was real encouraging and proves what we felt about Mike Williams, that we didn't think the game was too big for him," Olson said. "It's a preseason game, but it's still his first NFL football game. There wasn't any of the excitement that you see with rookie players. And when he got his chance, he made a play."
The Bucs' first-team defense did its part. Dolphins third-year quarterback Chad Henne went 5-of-11 for 19 yards. He was victimized by dropped passes, including two by former Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall.
With first-round pick Gerald McCoy and second-year pro Roy Miller anchoring the middle of the defense, the Bucs did a decent job of slowing the Dolphins' powerful running back duo of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. They combined to rush eight times for 30 yards (3.75 average).
Now for the buzzkill.
Because the Bucs are one of the youngest teams in the NFL, with only three starters 30 or older, their roster is thin.
Once Freeman and the starting offensive line took a seat late in the first quarter, the Bucs committed four turnovers, fumbling seven times and losing three. Backup quarterback Josh Johnson threw an interception and lost the handle on a pass, resulting in a fumble. Running back Derrick Ward put the ball on the turf twice, losing one fumble. Stroughter muffed a punt before knocking it out of bounds.
Ward was demolished, especially in the mud, playing behind the second-team offensive line. He had 20 yards on 12 carries (1.7-yard average). The conditions didn't affect backup Kareem Huggins, who led the Bucs with 55 yards on eight carries.
"What Freeman was able to do, hitting 100 percent (completions) and having a 158 rating at quarterback, he's got to be mentioned as a standout player (Saturday)," coach Raheem Morris said.
"I was very pleased with the way we ran the football and threw the football. And I was very pleased on defense with the way we stopped the run. … We've just got to clean up some things as far as penalties and turnovers."