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Martin Fennelly Columns

Uncertainty surrounds Bucs' Freeman, pass rush

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 12:24 AM
TAMPA -

Football is simple sometimes.

You get your quarterback going.

You get the other quarterback on the run.

We're halfway through the NFL preseason (let's give thanks and praise for that) but we still don't know.

Another preseason home opener has come and gone, a 30-7 loss to Tennessee on Friday night, and we still don't know which Josh Freeman is right around the corner, the up and comer from 2010 or the 2011 down and outer.

Two preseason games in and the pass rush still hasn't shown up in the form of an actual sack of a human quarterback, perhaps the smokiest gun that doomed this team in recent years.

Freeman has to snap back this season. The pass rush needs to come alive this season. If one of them doesn't show up, it's big trouble. If neither shows up, it's extinction level.

On a night the Bucs apparently emphasized the pass game early, Freeman completed four of 10 passes. He threw a touchdown pass to Mike Williams on Friday night. On one play, Freeman held the ball and made a nice scramble. He might not have done that a season ago. He purposely threw two balls away instead of forcing the issue. He might not have done that a season ago.

Some good stuff, some so-so stuff.

Freeman never looked quite right last preseason, and it carried over.

We won't know until the real games. Freeman looks to have a better offensive line with the addition of Carl Nicks, though it didn't look good Friday. Freeman looks to have some new weapons, including rookie runner Doug Martin, who has had a few shining moments in these first two exhibitions.

We still don't know. What we know is the Bucs can't win if Freeman plays the way he did last season, when he threw 22 interceptions against 16 touchdowns, after 25 TDs and just six picks in 2010. He went from breakout to broken.

Then there's the defense, which was shredded for a franchise record 494 points last season, and it started up front, with a league low, comically low 23 sacks to go with the worst rush defense in the league.

Basic rule: Your quarterback should never have more interceptions than your defense has sacks.

When this team was a champion, it began up front, with quarterbacks fearing for their lives.

This defense needs to make with the fear again.

It had several tackles for loss in the exhibition opener at Miami, and it made some plays Friday, stopping some drives before getting shredded. Michael Bennett halted Tennessee's Chris Johnson on third and short, Eric Wright nailed Johnson for a two-yard loss. Ahmad Black's interception set up Freeman to Williams. Oh, and Johnson ran for two 14-yard touchdowns.

And still no sacks from the Bucs starting front line.

It made with some pressure Friday. At one point, Adrian Clayborn and Roy Miller appeared tantalizingly close to Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker …

We keep hearing this will be a defense marked by an attacking style. We've seen some of that. But we haven't seen enough. There are guys who are healthier, though Da'Quan Bowers isn't one of them. We've heard Gerald McCoy is healthy, finally, and ready to become the elite player.

"I would be shocked if he doesn't have a breakout year," new Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said a couple of months back. The Bucs need that from McCoy. They need it up front. Right now, Adrian Clayborn, who had seven and a half sacks as a rookie, seems the only given, but is he really a given? We'll see.

"Really, the reality is somebody has to step up," Miller said this week. "As a man, you have to step up and handle it."

It's going to have to be that way up front. And it's going to have to be that way for Josh Freeman. He has to step up and handle a lot this season, but it goes with the job.

It's what football is. Bucs defensive line coach Randy Melvin was talking about that the day he was introduced to the media.

"Going back, even to when I was an intern in this league, getting ready for the draft, the philosophy was got to throw it and got to go and get the other thrower."

They'll need 5. They'll need sacks. Anything less and we're staring at one long season.

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