TAMPA — Since late in the 2009 season, the Bucs have taken steps toward proving they can pull out fourth-quarter victories.
Coming from behind has become something of a specialty for quarterback Josh Freeman, who has three late-game comebacks in four wins as a starter.
Conversely, the defense proved last season that it was pretty good at losing leads in the closing minutes.
In their opener against Cleveland on Sunday, the Bucs held on to a late lead for Freeman in their 17-14 win.
"I was proud of how we finished the game off," linebacker Barrett Ruud said.
After Freeman connected with Micheal Spurlock on what proved to be the winning touchdown pass with 6:56 left, the defense slammed the door on Cleveland, ending hopes of a rally with an interception by cornerback E.J. Biggers and, later, an assault on quarterback Jake Delhomme.
Three times last season, the Bucs gave up winning scores with fewer than two minutes remaining in a game.
On two of those occasions — at Miami and at Atlanta — the defensive collapse came after offensive heroics allowed Tampa Bay to take a late lead.
The Bucs let Carolina drive 80 yards on 16 plays to set up running back DeAngelo Williams' winning touchdown with 1:21 left in their 28-21 loss Oct. 18.
Atlanta quarterback Chris Redman engineered a 15-play drive that culminated with the winning touchdown pass to Roddy White with 23 seconds left in a 20-17 Bucs loss Nov. 29.
Perhaps most disappointing was the breakdown that allowed the Dolphins to rally for a win Nov. 15. The Bucs' sideline erupted as Cadillac Williams scored to put them ahead 23-22 with 1:19 left. This was followed by the Dolphins advancing from their 16-yard line to set up the winning 25-yard field goal with 14 seconds remaining.
"It definitely was (frustrating)," Ruud said. "As bad as we played last year, we still should have won a few more games just executionwise. I think you have to give credit to what we've done in the offseason. We've done some things, and I think it's showing on the field."
A few factors are at work. The biggest one is that the Bucs are more comfortable playing coach Raheem Morris' defense — Morris took over for deposed coordinator Jim Bates late last season — so players' reaction times are quicker and mistakes are fewer. That's critical in a two-minute situation, when the offense likely is in no-huddle mode and defensive substitutions are next to impossible to make.
"You have to be quick on your feet," linebacker Geno Hayes said. "We showed that when everybody's on the same page and you're on your P's and Q's, (the defense) can be great."
If you thought some defenders looked a little lost in some of those fourth quarters last season, you might be right.
"(The breakdowns) were disappointing," Hayes said. "Now you understand what's going on, and guys are really on point.
"In the two-minute (offense), you have to really be on point. You have to know what (the offense's) tendencies are, and the down and distance and their passing routes. It's good that all the young guys, including myself, got into the laboratory and started doing some research on that stuff."
Ruud also cited the team's tackling as a factor. Late in Sunday's game, defenders kept ballcarriers inbounds on several key plays, keeping the clock running.
Then there's this: Maybe this defense, which ranked 27th in the league last season, is just better.
"There were just signs of the defense just growing and developing and learning together (Sunday)," said Morris, still the defensive coordinator.
"In that second half, with the five three-and-outs (for the Browns' offense), it felt great. And we come off the field and all 45,000 that were there were chanting 'defense' again and getting that feeling back (for) our team."
The Bucs reactivated cornerback Aqib Talib from the suspended list and created an open spot on the active roster by releasing rookie defensive end Erik Lorig. The seventh-round pick from Stanford was inactive Sunday, joining another inactive defensive end, Michael Bennett, on the sideline.
Talib served a one-game suspension for a 2009 arrest in St. Petersburg for a run-in with a cab driver. He was suspended before this season for violating the league's personal conduct policy.
Lorig could be signed to the practice squad if he is not picked up by another club.
Meanwhile, punter Brent Bowden was released from the practice squad. Bowden, a sixth-round draft pick this year, was replaced by guard Brandon Carter, an undrafted free agent just released from the Saints' practice squad. Carter was a first-team All-Big 12 selection last season at Texas Tech.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.