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Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Is Freeman too confident for his own good?

TAMPA - Nothing tangible explains how Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman reached the point where he already has thrown as many interceptions five weeks into this season as he did all last year. After weeks of study and analysis, the best explanation the Bucs have come up with lies within a theory, and even that includes a glaring contradiction of human nature. How else would you describe the belief that Freeman's confidence — the thing that fuels his extraordinary fourth-quarter comebacks — is the root cause of the bulk of his six interceptions? For a team still trying to find its footing early in what was expected to be a promising season, it is a unique but potentially crippling quandary. Even Freeman admits he is stuck in the middle of it.
"It really is a fine line,'' he said. "You've got this confidence now, because you had a good season and a good offseason and because you study your opponent and you know what you're going to see. "But then, whether it's not making the throw or getting a little too heated up or whatever it might be, you try to force some things and you wind up having these picks. I just have to find a way to bounce back from it." Now more than ever. With running back LeGarrette Blount expected to miss today's NFC South showdown against the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium with a knee injury, the Bucs' offense suddenly has to rely more on Freeman than usual. That's not necessarily a bad circumstance. Freeman, who will make his 31st NFL start today, engineered eight game-winning comebacks in the fourth quarter or overtime during his first 27 starts, setting a standard for cardiac quarterbacks. Since the start of a new season, though, Freeman's burgeoning confidence has bred an aggressiveness that often resulted in disaster for a Bucs offense ranked tied for 27th in the league in scoring at 17.4 points per game. For example, two of Freeman's interceptions came on throws into the end zone in which he tried to squeeze balls into tight end Kellen Winslow, including one that came on a first-down play. There also was a throw Freeman made to receiver Mike Williams in front of the end zone during the opener against Detroit in which he ignored the fact he could see the front of a defender's jersey, usually a stop sign for quarterbacks. And it's not just the interceptions that are hurting the Bucs. Freeman also has thrown several passes that were nearly picked off and immediately judged as far too risky. There also was a decision on a second-and-goal play from the Atlanta 9-yard line in Week 3 in which Freeman tried to complete a pass instead of running the ball after he'd crossed the line of scrimmage. That earned Freeman an illegal-forward pass penalty, forced the Bucs to settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown and epitomized the problem that has plagued him this season. Far too often, Freeman has allowed a confidence borne out of a 2010 season when he threw 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions to be his guide. And far too often, his confidence betrayed him. "No, he has not made great decisions up to this point," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "He's got to do a better job of going through his progressions and getting into his check-downs and into his relay routes. "Sometimes he's just relying on his arm a little bit too much. So (our opponents) have definitely touched too many balls downfield that have been picked off or could have been picked off." The picks and near picks are not all Freeman's fault. Inadequate protection, poor route running and a failure to win one-on-one battles for the ball by his receivers also have contributed to the problem, the Bucs said. Receiver Mike Williams even went so far this week as to blame himself for many of the team's offensive woes, saying he was playing "terrible this season'' and needed to "step up." Freeman, though, has taken the brunt of the blame, particularly outside One Buc Place. He has not hesitated to accept his share of it, saying his confidence has indeed gotten the best of him at times. "Yeah, I'm a confident player," he said. "But with confidence, you still have to have responsibility. If you're going to take shots downfield, you have to know when to take your chances and when not to. That's something I'm working on." Freeman is working on other things, as well. He is just 23 and has a lot still to learn about playing quarterback, which Morris believes critics fail to remember. "Everything is about the growth and development of Josh Freeman," Morris said. "We want our guy to be like (Saints quarterback Drew Brees) one day. We want him to be aggressive, spread the ball around and have a grasp of the offense. "And he's gotten better as far as what we do with our offense and at recognizing defenses and what they do. So, now it's just a matter of going out there and executing the correct way all the time.'' All the time is the operative phrase. With the exception of the interceptions, Freeman has played well this season, especially in clutch situations such as third down and in the fourth quarter. He is ranked eighth in the league in third-down passer rating (91.5), 11th in fourth-quarter passer rating (95.1) and 10th in completion percentage (64.0). Yet, his overall passer rating of 74.1, which is nearly 22 points lower than at the end of last season, is near the bottom of the league. Those poor decisions and interceptions are the reason. "We went back and watched the tape, and the way the ball's coming out of my hand and things like that, I feel it's better than it was last year," Freeman said. "But obviously the interceptions and the turnovers are unacceptable. "I have a lot of confidence back there, but it's a matter now of me pulling back on some of these shots downfield that I want to take and looking to play another down rather than making a mistake. That's what I've got to do."

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