Freeman's play largely unnoticed in surge by Bucs


Freeman's play largely unnoticed in surge by Bucs

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) At 6-foot-6, 240 pounds and playing the highest-profile position on the field better than he ever has as a pro, it's difficult to imagine Josh Freeman being overshadowed in the emergence of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense.

The suddenly potent Bucs averaged more points, yards and yards per play than any team in the NFL in October and have won four of five games, including three straight, to turn their season around following a slow start.

Rookie Doug Martin grabbed headlines by racking up 214 yards in a nationally televised victory over Minnesota and following up with a 215-yard, four-touchdown rushing performance against Oakland. Receiver Vincent Jackson had a seven-catch, 216-yard day vs. New Orleans and has been applauded for making others around him better. Mike Williams has drawn rave reviews for making acrobatic receptions.

Yet the stellar play of Freeman, who's thrown for 13 TDs with only one interception in the past five weeks while re-establishing himself as one of the league's top young passers, largely has gone unnoticed.

``I think it's part of the growing-up process, being more mature and in control of whether it's emotions or whatever, as far as feeling the urgency to go out and make something big happen as opposed to just kind of letting it happen,'' Freeman said.

``It's definitely a different feeling,'' the fourth-year pro added. ``I think I learned a lot from last year as far as growing as a quarterback.''

Two years removed from leading the Bucs (5-4) to 10 wins and narrowly missing the playoffs in his first full season as a starter, Freeman has Tampa Bay back on a track after a 4-12 finish that included 10 straight losses to end 2011 raised questions about whether the franchise made a wise choice in drafting him in the first round in 2009.

The soft-spoken former Kansas State standout threw for 25 touchdowns with just six interceptions in 2010, then took a step back with 16 TDs and 22 interceptions last season.

Freeman averaged a league-leading 336.6 passing yards per game in October, thriving in an offense that's taken off since sputtering to a 1-3 start that included losses to the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins by a combined 15 points. The Bucs averaged 472 yards total offense and scored 34 points per game - both NFL highs - during the same stretch.

First-year coach Greg Schiano attributes some of the success to offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan and quarterbacks coach Ron Turner, who worked with Freeman during the offseason on the 24-year-old's mechanics and decision-making in the pocket.

Freeman also has benefited from a more aggressive approach to throwing the ball down the field that began during the second half of a 24-22 loss to Washington that dropped Tampa Bay to 1-3.

Jackson and Williams are averaging 21.4 and 18.3 yards per catch, respectively, and Martin has come on strong to rank among the league's leading rushers with 862 yards and seven TDs.

Freeman, meanwhile, is averaging an NFL-best 8.27 yards per pass attempt.

``I think most of it is Josh. The weapons around him are great and the mechanics are fixed, but he had to do all the work. This guy has worked from the day we got hired,'' Schiano said of the turnaround.

``He wanted to do everything he possibly could to become the quarterback he sees himself as,'' the coach added. ``He's not where he wants to be. He's not where we want him to be because his upside is way up there. But if he keeps working, he'll get there.''

Freeman is appreciative of the talent that Schiano has put around him.

The Bucs signed Jackson to a five-year, $55.55 million in free agency, a contract written in all 5's in honor of Freeman's jersey number. Martin was drafted late in the first-round in hopes he will develop into the complete, every-down back the Bucs have craved for more than a decade.

``They're all tremendous in their own right,'' Freeman said, including another free agent acquisition, tight end Dallas Clark, among the group that's helped transform the offense into an entertaining high-scoring act. ``They all make plays.''

The Bucs have scored 28 or more points in five consecutive games for the first time in team history. They've averaged 37.3 during the winning streak they'll try to extend to four games Sunday at Carolina.

Schiano said one of the keys to Freeman's success is the quarterback has simply made plays, not try to be a hero each Sunday.

``He understands better what we're doing, what we're asking of him, and he's playing within himself. He's not trying to make plays, he's just trusting his training and executing what he's been trained to do, and the plays come,'' Schiano said.

``When you're as talented as Josh Freeman is and you're as talented as we are at wideout and tight end and running back, if you just go out there and process, process, process, the plays will come,'' Schiano added. ``And more importantly, the negative plays won't come.''


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Jay Gruden's job is on the hot seat, and he knows it

Jay Gruden's job is on the hot seat, and he knows it

The Redskins lost their fourth straight game on Sunday, this time in embarrassing fashion. Washington head coach Jay Gruden can feel the pressure mounting. 

"My job is in jeopardy every week," Gruden said after the 40-16 defeat. 

Forgive the head coach a bit of hyperbole, but not much. NFL coaches age in dog years. Every game is a referendum on their ability, and that takes a toll.

For Gruden, it hasn't been an easy season. What started well has since fallen apart, and things swung dramatically when Alex Smith broke his leg last month. His team took an even bigger hit when Colt McCoy also broke his leg last week

Not everything swung on the health of the quarterbacks though.

The Redskins defense started the season strong but has been bad for the last six weeks. Penalties are also a tremendous problem for the Burgundy and Gold. 

"For the most part, I don’t have an explanation right now as far as what the breakdowns were, who they were and why they were," he said.

It doesn't seem fair to blame everything on Gruden, but that's also the nature of the NFL. 

In some ways, it seems Gruden's modest success in Washington might also be his downfall. Jay Gruden's teams won at least seven games the last three years. No Redskins coach in the last 20 years can say the same thing. Gruden was the first, and only, coach to get a contract extension under owner Daniel Snyder. That shows some level of continued competency. Gruden has maneuvered with a stable roster capable of sustained mediocrity, largely without drama.

But there also hasn't been any real success.

The team won the NFC East in 2015, but got quickly dispatched in the playoffs. Gruden's squad lost a win-and-in Week 17 game to the Giants in 2016 to miss the playoffs. In 2017, injuries buried the Redskins' chance at playoff success. In 2018, a new rash of injuries did the same thing. 

The ugly losses don't help. There have been embarrassing defeats that lead some in the 'Skins fanbase to scream for coaching changes. The first half of the Giants game might be a new low point for a franchise that all too often is forced to wonder about new low points. 

Gruden knows the current situation. He understands it. 

He was clearly upset after the Giants game, frustrated by the injuries and his defense's play. Next week in Jacksonville, the team will start their fourth quarterback of the season. That's almost unprecedented in the NFL. 

"What did work? There was nothing that worked so nothing worked. Everything did not work," the coach said.

The nature of the NFL beast means the spotlight lands on the head coach, for better or worse. Gruden, now in his fifth season, knows that, and knows what that means after an awful loss. 

"It’s tough to deal with. It really is. It’s unfortunate. Our guys continue to compete. That product we put on the field today was not a reflection of the guys work during the week and at practice. However, it did look bad. It’s a reflection of all of us."

While the reflection might be of the whole team, Gruden is in the center. 



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Three things to watch for Wizards at Pacers, including if John Wall and Victor Oladipo will play

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Three things to watch for Wizards at Pacers, including if John Wall and Victor Oladipo will play

John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr. and the Washington Wizards take on Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, Bojan Bogdanovic and the Indiana Pacers. Tipoff is at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington. 

Here are three things to watch...

Will Wall play?

As John Wall continues to deal with a variety of issues, including a left heel injury, he may miss Monday's matchup with the Pacers. Wall was absent for Sunday's practice one day after scoring only one point in a blowout loss to the Cavaliers.

If Wall's heel does not improve much, it may make more sense to rest him. Just two games ago they were able to win without him against the Atlanta Hawks. Austin Rivers and Tomas Satoransky in the starting lineup may be a better option than a hobbled version of Wall.

Oladipo also hurt

Wall isn't the only star guard who could miss this game. The Pacers have been without Victor Oladipo since Nov. 17 due to a knee injury. He has missed their last 10 games.

The Pacers have actually played quite well without Oladipo, who earned All-NBA honors last season. They are 6-4 since he went down and have won three straight. He is considered day-to-day.

Oladipo, 26, is having another big year with 21.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Tyreke Evans has started in his place alongside point guard Darren Collison.

Pacers are great on defense

The Wizards had major trouble scoring on Saturday night and that was against the Cavs, arguably the worst defensive team in the NBA. In the Pacers, they will meet possibly the best defense in the league.

Anchored by Myles Turner in the middle, the Pacers are allowing the fewest points (101.5) of any team in the NBA this season and their defensive rating (103.7) ranks third. They force the fourth-most turnovers per game (15.7) and hold teams to the fifth-lowest field goal percentage (44.1).

The Wizards will have to work to get good looks on the offensive end, as Indiana will not make it easy on them.