Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris has a tendency to give long, rambling, even disjointed answers to questions he fields during his daily news conference, but when asked during training camp what the team had to do to improve on its 10-6 run from a year ago, he was quick and to the point.
"We have to learn to finish better,'' he said.
All indications are the lesson has been learned.
As they streak past the quarter pole of the season at 3-1 and head for one of the most difficult stretches in their schedule, the Bucs are riding a three-game winning streak that is largely a byproduct of the success they've had finishing off opponents in the fourth quarter.
"That's our identity,'' receiver Mike Williams said. "It's finishing games. We've had problems starting games. Everyone knows about that. But one thing we know how to do is finish them.''
And finish them strong. Tampa Bay has outscored opponents 28-13 in the fourth quarter this season. That 15-point point differential is sixth-best in the league.
The Bucs also go into their game against the 49ers in San Francisco on Sunday with an average fourth-quarter time of possession of 8 minutes, 47 seconds, which is fourth-best in the league.
"We're doing a great job of finishing, and I think it's a matter of us having a better understanding of situational football,'' Morris said.
"The defense has done a better job in the four-minute drill of getting the ball back when we've been behind, and the offense has done a better job in the four-minute drill, the last two weeks in particular.''
The Bucs have outscored opponents by a combined 7-0 during the last four minutes of their past two games — victories against Atlanta and Indianapolis. In each case the offense extended its last possession by holding onto the ball until the final whistle.
Against the Colts, the score was tied at 17 to start the fourth quarter, with Tampa Bay taking its first lead on LeGarrette Blount's 35-yard touchdown run with 3:15 left in the game.
Not surprisingly, quarterback Josh Freeman is often at his best in the fourth quarter. In 29 NFL starts, he has engineered eight comeback victories when the team trailed in the fourth quarter.
He is ranked 10th in the league with a fourth-quarter passer rating of 95.5 and fourth in fourth-quarter completion percentage at 71.1. He also has a lofty fourth-quarter confidence level that has spread to every corner of the locker room.
"It definitely starts with Josh, but it's rubbed off on everybody," left tackle Donald Penn said. "Now it's like we have no doubt whatsoever that we're going to complete this drive, finish this thing off and win this game.''
"Yeah, I think everybody in our room feels that way,'' Freeman said. "There was so little stress going into that last drive (against the Colts) on Monday night. We knew we were going to get the job done.''
Freeman isn't the only reason. The team's makeup and its offensive and defensive game plans are designed to wear down opponents to the point they become vulnerable late in games.
The idea is to bludgeon opposing defenses with power backs LeGarrette Blount and Earnest Graham and batter opposing offenses with hard-hitting defenders such as linebacker Mason Foster and end Adrian Clayborn.
Morris' penchant for rotating players also has factored into success, particularly on defense where linemen Gerald McCoy, Brian Price and Roy Miller are encouraged to come off the field whenever they get tired.
"I think that's helped us a lot,'' McCoy said of the liberal defensive line rotation. "Last year it was kind of like, if you get tired you just have to play through it. But this year, if you get tired you just run off the field.
"That's keeping guys fresher, and that's big because if you can get guys to come out and play those snaps and give everything they've got, then you've got the starters coming back out when you need them and they're still fresh.''
Four of the eight sacks Tampa Bay recorded the past two games came in the fourth quarter, including three against the Colts.
But sacks and point differential are not the only indications the Bucs' game plans are working. Tampa Bay also has outgained opponents 490-352 in the fourth quarter and has 31 first downs to their opponents' 21 during that quarter.
"It's at the point now where we don't expect anything less than to do well in the fourth quarter and finish teams off, no matter what the score is, no matter who we're playing,'' Penn said.
BUCS AT 49ERS
BUCS AT 49ERS
Sunday: 4:05 p.m.
TV: Fox, Channel 13