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PLAYING LIKE A ROOKIE

In his first start,Josh Freeman has some ups and some downs.

Josh Freeman will have time to grow into his role as the Bucs' franchise quarterback.

Friday against the Texans, the rookie provided a microwave version of the maturation process.

Freeman's first snap in his first start resulted in an interception.

But his final pass was a 23-yard rope threaded between two defenders to receiver Cortez Hankton for a touchdown with eight seconds remaining in the first half.

That capped a 10-play, 74-yard drive that started with 2:13 left in the first half of the Bucs' 27-20 loss to the Texans in the final preseason game that saw Houston play no first-team defensive players.

And because the Bucs have decided to treat Freeman like a family heirloom, it's anyone's guess when they might let him play again.

He is expected to begin the season as the No. 3 quarterback but even that might be reconsidered.

In fact, Freeman was not even the more impressive quarterback named Josh.

Second-year pro Josh Johnson, who played the second half, passed for 182 yards with a touchdown and interception. But his 83-yard drive in the final minutes fell short despite three snaps from the Houston 3.

Judging from his performance against a collection of backups and players unlikely to make the Texans roster, it might be a very long time before you see Freeman chucking it around Raymond James Stadium again.

Or at least until the Bucs return from their game in London on Oct. 25 and chew on things over the ensuing bye week.

"I played a little too conscious and was not really letting the game come to me. And it wasn't really working out," Freeman said. "Then I got the opportunity in that two-minute drive to come out and cut a few loose. I had a lot of my teammates make a lot of big plays for me.

"It was good to finish out strong."

Freeman finished 7-of-17 for 85 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. His passer rating was 37.3. He also scrambled three times for 27 yards.

That's the good news because it could have been much worse.

Trailing 14-3, Freeman whistled a pass behind tight end Jason Pociask. Linebacker Kevin Bentley intercepted the deflected pass to give the Texans the ball at the Tampa Bay 14.

At that point, Freeman had completed 3 of 10 passes for 28 yards with two picks. Not exactly the numbers the Bucs wanted to see from the 17th overall pick.

"He started out a little nervous," coach Raheem Morris said. "You could see it in some of his throws. He made some nice plays, some nice scrambles. He was moving around a little bit more than you would like to see him move around. But he came back and delivered a touchdown, and we're fired up about that."

On the touchdown drive, Freeman was 4-of-7 for 57 yards. For the preseason, he was 22-of-49 for 238 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions.

"I definitely have learned a lot," he said. "I know I am going to continue to learn a lot more. Now I have to be supportive of my teammates and keep working and things will continue."

The Bucs plan to keep all four quarterbacks on their 53-man roster.

Unfortunately for him, Johnson leveled the playing field with Freeman on Friday by also throwing an interception on his first attempt. The pass - also intended for Pociask - was intercepted by safety John Busing, who returned it 27 yards to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by former USF star Andre Hall.

But Johnson was much more poised in the pocket than Freeman. He went through his progressions and spread the football around, leading the Bucs on two scoring drives of longer than 70 yards.

The first one resulted in Mike Nugent's 24-yard field goal. Johnson then fired a 14-yard touchdown to tight end Ryan Purvis with 8:06 left in the game to cut the Texans' lead to 27-20.

With the Bucs' starters playing only one series, it wasn't a very good night for their young defense.

Former Florida quarterback Rex Grossman, battling for a roster spot, threw two touchdowns, including an 87-yarder to Jacoby Jones.

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