TAMPA — Josh Freeman changed his diet, trading the midnight runs to Taco Bell for grilled chicken and broccoli and losing 20 pounds with the leaner cuisine.
On the field, he also learned how to eat the football.
A year ago, Freeman tossed 22 interceptions and fumbled nine times, the Bucs recovering only two. That contributed to the team committing a league-high 40 turnovers and having a league-high minus-16 turnover margin.
It wasn't all Freeman's fault.
Protection from the offensive line was poor. The defense usually dug too deep of a hole — forcing Freeman to throw often — and his receivers didn't get much separation.
But during the offseason, new quarterbacks coach Ron Turner went to work on Freeman's fundamentals, making sure the fourth-year player holds the ball higher with two hands, especially when on the move.
So far, so good.
In last week's 16-10 win over the Panthers, the Bucs did not turn the ball over.
Ball security will continue to be a key to success, particularly this afternoon against a Giants defensive line that features Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul.
"We know it's going to be a game we're going to have to go out and get the ball out of our hands and take care of the football," Freeman said. "Dropping back, keeping two hands on the ball … ball security is going to be a huge point of emphasis.
"With the Giants, when they're even or they win (the turnover battle), they usually come out with a win. But when they lose the turnover battle, it kind of shifts."
Complicating matters is the Bucs already are beat up on the offensive line. Right guard Davin Joseph is lost for the season with a torn patellar tendon in his right knee and has been replaced by Ted Larsen. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood sprained his left ankle in practice Wednesday and is questionable for today.
Even Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks is nicked with a sore right big toe (though he is probable).
"You are not going to have a lot of time to get the ball off," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "I don't care what you do. Those guys are relentless, and they are good. We've really got to be smart because not only do they get to the quarterback, but they cause some really bad things. They sack/fumble you. They really are very good at it. We need to be at our best."
Last season, the Giants forced 13 fumbles and 20 interceptions. Pierre-Paul, the former USF star, had 16½ sacks. Tuck (45½ career sacks) and Umenyiora (69) are among the best pass rushers in the league.
"You have to take into account they're disruptive ability," Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said. "It's not just the sack. It's the sack/fumble. It's the big momentum-type plays, and the crowd feeds off it. And the rest of the defense feeds off it."
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected] and heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620.