TAMPA — QB Josh Freeman is the Bucs' second-leading rusher with 114 yards, but his forays from the pocket are not the best way he can ignite the running game.
Freeman has to start making teams pay for putting eight (or more) defenders in the box, often blitzing with reckless abandon and leaving cornerbacks on an island.
"We've challenged our offense," coach Raheem Morris said. "We can't run the football, and they've got eight men in the box there. Now they've got nine in the box. 'Okay, Josh, what are you going to do?' You hit a couple (passes) and … Mike (Williams) catches a couple more balls, and you open up the running game."
By most measures, Freeman has not played poorly. He has passed for 1,043 yards, completing 59.1 percent of his throws, with six touchdowns and three interceptions.
He has played well under pressure — on third down and in the fourth quarter — attributes that are normally associated with the league's best quarterbacks.
But Freeman needs to do more, and the Bucs have told him as much.
If Tampa Bay's offensive line has demonstrated a strength this season, it's pass protection. Keeping their franchise quarterback healthy for 16 games might be just as important as winning.
Opponents know Freeman's big arm, and his ability to keep plays alive with his feet, gives the Bucs offense its best chance to score. So in many cases, they're bringing more defenders than the Bucs can block to get the football out of Freeman's hands before the downfield routes can develop.
That often means Freeman has to settle for shorter, underneath throws and moving the chains with a string of completions.
The Bucs are 29th in the NFL in points scored, averaging 16 per game. They've scored four touchdowns in three games at Raymond James Stadium this season, two of them coming in the season opener against the Browns.
Freeman is putting together a safe, mistake-free year. But given the Bucs' defensive struggles and inability to run the football (91.2 yards per game), Freeman is being asked to do more.
The real McCoy: It took a while — minicamp, OTAs, training camp, preseason and five regular-season games — but rookie DT Gerald McCoy says he finally knows how he's expected to play in the Bucs defense.
McCoy has been so preoccupied with not blowing assignments and covering his gap that he forgot to use his No. 1 attribute — his explosiveness off the ball. McCoy's primary job is to get up the field and be disruptive.
"He was so scared to make a mistake that it kind of slowed him down," Morris said. " … We want vertical penetration out of this young man for him to be able to make plays. … He needs to just work on one thing until he's that guy that can come off the ball, take an in-flight adjustment step, figure out what's going on, absolutely throw the fullback back out of the way and slam dunk the tailback."
Price is not right: The Bucs are concerned about DT Brian Price, their second-round pick from UCLA. An MRI revealed that Price has inflammation and irritation around his hip. He is listed as week to week, but the plan is to shut him down for perhaps a month.
Fortunately, it's early enough in the season that the Bucs can take this approach. If the hip improves with rest, it's a great sign that surgery won't be required. If not, well, it could be more serious than expected, although no structural damage has been detected.
Credit Price for playing through the pain and playing well at times. But the injury prevented him from ever really getting into shape, which no doubt has affected his production.
Rick Stroud can be reached at email@example.com.