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Buccaneers vs. Panthers: Freeman taking what the defense gives him

Josh Freeman has been terrific the past four games, but can he keep it up against a quality Carolina defense?

Al Messerschmidt

Josh Freeman has been absolutely outstanding since the week five bye. He's faced poor pass defense after poor defense, with the exception of the usually quite good Minnesota defense, and he's shredded them all. With 1,467 yards, 13 touchdowns and just one interception he has been better than any NFL quarterback over those five games. His performance has led to him leading the league in yards per attempt, despite a lackluster start to the season.

The question now is: can Freeman keep it up? Those stellar numbers will necessarily come down through simple reversion to the mean, but another factor could get in the way this week: the Carolina pass defense. In week one, that defense limited Freeman to just 138 passing yards on 24 attempts, an abysmal performance - though not as bad as his week three performance against the Dallas Cowboys.

The first game against the Panthers wasn't great for Freeman, but the Buccaneers still won. Still, the Panthers defense presents a formidable challenge. Football Outsiders has them ranked fourth in adjusted sack rate, and seventh in overall pass defense. In fact, the Panthers defense may be the toughest defense Freeman has faced all season. But Freeman isn't the same quarterback he was in game one: he appears to have a much better understanding of the offense, and he looks like a much more comfortable quarterback. Here's what Greg Cosell had to say on that subject on the Fantasy Guru matchup podcast for week 11 :

I think you have to look at his development. This is his third full year as a starter. In his first full year as a starter, his numbers were terrific and he made a lot of plays outside of the pocket, improvisitionally. And I think we all overreacted to that -- that's not sustainable. Then last year, as he continued to transition to play NFL quarterback, he struggled.

And now this year he's gotten much better reading coverage -- and I hate to use a cliche but you'll know what it means -- and taking what the defense is giving him. In other words: if he drops back and a first read is taken away, he's now more comfortably and more quickly understanding where the second read is, and going to that read.

And you know where that's really noticeable? In the red zone. He's thrown more red zone touchdowns this year, through ten games-nine games, they're five and four, than he did all of last season. So, think about that: he's thrown more red zone touchdowns in nine games this year than he did all of last season.

So, he's clearly an improving player. Is he still scattershot every once in a while? No question. Are there still some throws he misses, which is why his completion percentage is not that high? No question. But he's not making mistakes as much as he did in the past. Reading mistakes, poor decisions, poor throws. He's just playing a little more calmly and a little more comfortably.

Freeman isn't a finished product yet, but his progress has been outstanding. Tomorrow's game will go a long way toward determining how far he's come -- although we must be careful not to draw large conclusions from one game. But one aspect of Freeman's game will be crucial tomorrow: he has to take what the defense gives him. Take your shots to Jackson and Williams when they're open, or in position to win jump balls, but if the defense is taking that away: dump it off. Freeman's done a great job of finding the open player the past five games. Can he keep it up against a good defense?


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