Freeman perfect when it counts in 17-14 win over Browns
Aaron Knox, The Tampa Tribune, published 13 September 2010

Josh Freeman wasn't perfect in his first game back from a broken thumb Sunday in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' opener but one throw was, and that was enough in a 17-14 victory over the Cleveland Browns at Raymond James Stadium.

Freeman hit Michael Spurlock with a strike in the right side of the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown that gave the Bucs their only lead midway through the fourth quarter, and the Tampa Bay defense pitched a shutout in the second half.

Freeman lofted the ball over tight defense by Cleveland rookie (and former Florida Gator) Joe Haden, who was called for illegal contact on the play, and Spurlock pulled in the first receiving touchdown of his career with 6:35 left in the game. It gave the Bucs their first lead after the Browns had gone on top 14-3 in the second quarter. "We needed somebody to make a play," Freeman said. "Michael Spurlock ran a great route and we were on the same page."

That came one play after Freeman, who was 17-of-28 for 182 yards, two TDs and an interception, had badly overthrown wide open rookie receiver Mike Williams for what looked like a sure score down the left sideline. "He was just so wide open, but I overthrew him," Freeman said. "I apologized to Mike (later)."

The Bucs defense held the Browns scoreless in the second half and forced three turnovers, including two interceptions by Jake Delhomme. "Not our best performance, but I'm not going to cry about it," head coach Raheem Morris said. "We got the win."

The second interception was by cornerback E.J. Biggers with 6:17 left to play. Biggers was thrust into the starting lineup when Aqib Talib was suspended for one game, and Biggers had been burned by Cleveland receiver Mohamed Massaquoi for the Browns' first score. "I like the way he responded to being victimized," Morris said. "Things go wrong in this game. He kept his head up."

Williams made a three-yard touchdown catch one play after Ronde Barber had a 65-yard interception return to bring the Buccaneers within 14-10 at halftime. Barber picked off Delhomme with time running out in the first half, moments after Freeman had thrown his own interception to Cleveland's Mike Adams.

Barber seemed to have clear sailing down the left sideline, but ran out of gas and was caught by three Cleveland pursuers and pushed down at the Browns 3-yard line with 26 seconds left in the half. "His 34-year-old legs couldn't get him to the end zone like he used to," Morris said with a laugh, apparently forgetting that Barber turned 35 this year. "But he got us close enough to get the touchdown."

On the next play Freeman threw over the middle, where Williams spun back against the grain to catch a ball thrown behind him, tipping the ball to himself, for his first official NFL touchdown reception. That cut the Browns' lead to 14-10 with 18 seconds remaining in the second quarter.

"I tipped it and I knew exactly where I tipped it to," Williams said. "I ran to the back of the end zone and it fell into my hands. It felt good."

Freeman was grateful. "It could have been a better ball, but when you have a receiver like Mike Williams, he just makes great plays," he said. "I told him, 'Thank you. That was great.'''

Cleveland kicker Jake Dawson missed a 61-yard field goal attempt on the final play of the first half. Freeman, seeing his first action since breaking the tip of his right thumb in the Bucs' second preseason game, was 8-of-14 passing for just 60 yards in the first half.

Cleveland averaged 7.9 yards per carry on the ground in the first half, against a Bucs defense that finished last in the NFL against the rush in 2009. The Browns, though, gained just 17 yards on 12 carries in the second half.

Payton Hillis swept for a 10-yard touchdown run as the Browns took a 14-3 lead in the second quarter. Hillis' TD capped a five-play, 63-yard drive, sparked by a 39-yard run up the right sideline by fellow running back Jerome Harrison that gave the Browns a first down at the Bucs 10-yard line. Following a timeout, Hillis scored on the next play, with 5:35 left in the second quarter. He later lost a fumble at the Tampa Bay 15-yard line in what turned out to be a scoreless third quarter.

Delhomme hit Massaquoi for a 41-yard touchdown pass as the Browns took a 7-3 lead in the first quarter. Massaquoi got behind the Bucs defense when Biggers fell down, nearly colliding with safety Tanard Jackson over the middle and allowing Massaquoi to coast untouched into the end zone with 2:38 left in the opening period.

Connor Barth kicked a 49-yard field goal on Tampa Bay's next possession, pulling the Bucs within 7-3. Freeman's career-best 33-yard run set up that kick, which came with 50 seconds left in the first quarter. Rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy had three tackles and a forced fumble in his NFL debut.0110