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What is wrong with Josh Freeman this season? Part One: The running game

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One week I think Josh Freeman is improving and getting out of his third-year slump and the next week he goes and loses the game for the Bucs. This team is inconsistent right now, but no one is more inconsistent than Josh Freeman. He has had good games, and he has had horrible games. He hasn't been consistently accurate, hasn't consistently made the right decisions, and hasn't consistently moved the team downfield. 

The problem is that there isn't a single thing that is causing Freeman problems. This was in perfect display in the game against the Chicago Bears and his four interceptions. The first interception was a bobbled catch by Mike Williams that was ripped out of his hands. The second was caused by Freeman's overconfidence: thinking he can get a ball to Kellen Winslow while Winslow was covered underneath by Lance Briggs, and there was no room to fit that ball in. The third interception was a bad throw, where he didn't get enough air under the ball to lift it over Brian Urlacher to an open Kellen Winslow. And finally that last interception was caused by throwing a ball off his back foot into coverage because there was a defensive lineman in his face. 

In order, those interceptions were caused by poor receiver play, overconfidence, a bad throw and pass pressure. There's not exactly a theme, there - which shows that there are many different things breaking down for Josh Freeman this season. To explain why Josh Freeman is having the year he is having after being terrific just one season ago, we need to examine all the causes. Today we're going to look at cause number one: the running game. 

I hate the statistic that says "Team X has won often when they run the ball a lot". That statistic exists for every team in the NFL for one very simple reason: teams run the ball when they're ahead, and they pass when they're down. But that doesn't mean there isn't some truth to the underlying idea: if you run the ball well, you make it easier to move the ball through the air. 

This makes a lot of intuitive sense. If you run the ball successfully you force the opposing defense to start walking a safety up to the line of scrimmage. That limits what the defense can do in coverage, helping out the quarterback. Similarly, running the ball well and a lot forces defensive backs to react to the run on play-action fakes.

Instead, the Bucs have had to rely on Josh Freeman to win games by himself this year. Combine that with being down by a few scores for large parts of games, and Freeman now has the second-most pass attempts in the NFL with 270. Only Drew Brees has thrown more passes. Last season Freeman threw fewer passes than any other 16-game starter with 470. This season he's on track to throw an incredible 617 passes. 

The importance of the running is visible in the first-half statistics, which are a good measure of how often and how effectively the team is running the ball in standard situations. Once we get to second halves the statistics start to get skewed by the game situation. So, here are the first half statistics for the Bucs this season. Note that I'm including sacks and quarterback scrambles under dropbacks and not under rushes, and I added scramble yardage to the passing yardage. I did include quarterback sneaks under rushes, and I left out one quarterback kneel. I'm also ignoring end-arounds and the like. 

Week/Game Rushes Yards Average Dropbacks Completions Yards Touchdowns Interceptions Final Game Result
1 - Detroit Lions 5 13 2.6 18 10 99 0 1 L - 27-20
2 - at Minnesota Vikings 6 11 1.8 14 7 64 0 0 W - 24-20
3 - Atlanta Falcons 10 24 2.4 19 14 115 0 1 W 13-16
4 - Indianapolis Colts 10 53 5.3 25 17 187 0 0 W - 17-24
5 - at San Francisco 49ers 13 48 3.7 23 10 101 0 2 L - 3-48
6 - New Orleans Saints 10 62 6.2 25 16 195 2 0 W - 20-26
7 - Chicago Bears 7 33 4.7 23 13 104 0 1 L - 24-18

The conclusion isn't that clear as you would think in this case. The Bucs struggled to run the ball at all against the Vikings, but ultimately walked away the winners after a good second half. Meanwhile the Bucs actually moved the ball fairly well on the ground against the San Francisco 49ers but got stomped. The Bears game is easy to explain at least: Earnest Graham went out with an injury early in the game, hampering the running game. 

There is some evidence of the running game helping out the passing game here, but the stats also clearly show that the problems run deeper. Josh Freeman had his worst game against the San Francisco 49ers, but the Bucs actually ran the ball more early in that game than in any other game this season. 

Getting the running game back on track will help Josh Freeman for the reasons I mentioned above, and this should happen after the bye week. Jeff Faine will likely return from injury then, although Jeremy Zuttah might still be missing at that point. More importantly, Legarrette Blount should be fully healthy again to face the division-leading New Orleans Saints.