Rams send Bucs to fifth straight defeat, 28-13
Whether he chooses to acknowledge its existence, Josh Freeman has, for the first time in his four-year pro career, a growing legion of detractors. All he did Sunday was give it reason to expand its ranks.
In his first attempt to quell his critics' loudest cries yet, Freeman followed up last week's four-interception clunker against the Saints with another four-interception dud in a 28-13 loss to the Rams at Raymond James Stadium.
That he did so on a day when he also set the franchise mark for most passing yards in a season (3,843) and tied franchise records for most touchdown passes in a season (26) and a career (77) didn't seem to matter.
Freeman was the only player to elicit boos from the small collection of fans that cheered the Bucs as they ran through the tunnel from the field to their locker room after a fifth straight loss.
"That Saints game last week and this game today, it's not really the brand of football that I expect to play,'' Freeman said. "I just have to figure out a way not to do it."
Not every interception was Freeman's fault. Receiver Mike Williams, who slipped and fell on the play, took the blame for the first. The fourth came after a pass was tipped into the air at the line of scrimmage.
But the Bucs (6-9) are guaranteed to have a losing record for the third time since Freeman arrived as a first-round draft pick in 2009 after the Rams turned three of his interceptions into 21 game-altering points.
"Whether it's a guy slipping or whatever, you just have to figure out a way to take away these turnovers, because our defense really came out and played great today," said Freeman, who completed 30 of 54 passes for 372 yards and one touchdown for a 52.4 passer rating. "We kept putting them in tough spots, but they rose to the occasion.''
That's the real shame of this loss. A Bucs defense that surrendered 41 points to the Saints a week ago and is on pace to set the NFL record for most passing yards allowed in a season turned in one of its best games of the year.
Tampa Bay limited St. Louis to 285 total yards, including 196 passing. Each figure represented the second-lowest total of the season behind the 260 total yards and 180 passing yards allowed during a 38-10 victory against the Chiefs on Oct. 14.
This was also one of the Bucs' cleanest games of the year. They were penalized just once — center Ted Larsen for a false start on the first drive — matching the low set during their 34-24 victory over the Chargers on Nov. 11. "You just can't turn the ball over,'' Greg Schiano said. "That's what it comes down to in this league. People are too good. You turn it over and it's going to be awfully hard to win games.''
Freeman is proof of that. He threw seven interceptions in his first 10 games this season and the Bucs won six. Since then, he's thrown nine in five games, including eight in the past two, and the Bucs didn't win any of them.
Not that turnovers were the only problem Sunday. The Bucs also struggled inside the red zone, producing just one field goal in three trips.
Not that long ago, avoiding turnovers and scoring in the red zone were among the Bucs' strengths. A month ago, they ranked third in the league in takeaway ratio. And entering Sunday, they ranked third in touchdown production inside the opponent's 20-yard line with 27 TDs in 41 trips.
But against the Rams, they failed to reach the end zone even after twice moving the ball inside the Rams' 8-yard line.
On the first, Freeman failed to convert a sneak play on fourth-and-1 from the Rams 5. On the other, four straight passes failed to get the 7 yards they needed for a score.
Schiano took the blame for the failed sneak. He called for a short pass play that failed on third-and-1 and a hurry-up sneak on fourth down, but the Rams were given a chance to prepare for the sneak when the setup went awry.
"I thought we'd definitely catch them before they were ready on that one,'' Schiano said. "I don't know what happened there. I don't know if they put a kicking ball in because they thought we were kicking a field goal or what, but all of a sudden, there was no football and everybody's waiting and waiting.
"At that point, I should have just run down there and called a timeout and huddled up and called a different play, because once they're ready for the sneak we're swimming upstream. So, I kick myself in the rear end for that one.''
Freeman kicked himself a little, too, noting he moved the Bucs well enough to put them in position to tighten the game on those two occasions, but ultimately failed to get the job done.
"You talk about those drives into the red zone and (if) we score two touchdowns there like we're capable of, you're looking at either a tie ballgame or a one-point ballgame with plenty of time left in the fourth quarter,'' he said.
"But we didn't do that and so we have to go back and take a real hard look at ourselves as an offense and, me personally, I just have to find a way to cut these turnovers out so we can win the game. It's as simple as that.''