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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs working on red zone offense

arichardson@tampatrib.com
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 08:06 PM
TAMPA -

The Buccaneers have approached the red zone like a flashing yellow caution light was planted on the 20-yard line.

In three games this season, the Bucs have made nine red zone visits and scored only three touchdowns. They have kicked three field goals and not scored on three other trips.

As a result, Tampa Bay's red zone offense is ranked 26th in the NFL, ahead of only six other teams. Philadelphia has scored seven touchdowns and one field goal in eight red zone possessions and is the NFL's top-ranked team.

The Bucs (2-1) are working on ways to improve their red zone efficiency during the bye week before playing at Cincinnati on Oct. 10.

"There is a fine line between being aggressive and too aggressive," said quarterback Josh Freeman, who admits to seeing more zone defenses in the red zone this year. "We've got to go down there and understand that field goals on every possession doesn't win football games in this league.

"You've got to go down and get into the red zone, and you've got to capitalize on the long drives. It's definitely been an emphasis."

Tampa Bay has stressed to Freeman the importance of playing smart in the red zone.

Freeman has two red zone touchdown passes - Mike Williams' 3-yard reception against Cleveland and Earnest Graham's 14-yard catch at Carolina - but coaches prefer he take safe options instead of trying to force a touchdown pass.

"I think down in the red zone it's either touchdown or check down," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "You don't want to take away points out of your mouth. You don't want to take points off the scoreboard. We learned that mistake last year against Carolina the hard way."

Freeman threw five interceptions at Carolina in December, all inside the Panthers' 20-yard line.

Morris sees improvement this season.

"I think Free has done a great job of managing that," Morris said. "You like to eliminate the things that happen to us a couple of times we were down there."

Tampa Bay had two red zone possessions where coaches believe their team could have scored.

The Bucs faced third-and-1 on Cleveland's 2-yard as they clung to a 17-14 lead with 2:24 remaining. Graham took Freeman's handoff up the middle and fumbled after a hit. Cleveland recovered Graham's fumble but did not score.

Last week, Tampa Bay faced first-and-10 on Pittsburgh's 17-yard line and trailed 28-6 as the fourth quarter began. Freeman threw a short pass to Sammie Stroughter, which bounced off his hands and into the arms of Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel. The interception was returned 79 yards for a touchdown and ended any hope Tampa Bay had of a comeback.

"We (also) had a drop on a screen pass to Cadillac (Williams) early, and we felt like that should have been a touchdown," Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "We've had some opportunities. On our part, it's execution more than anything.

"When you have the opportunity to score a touchdown and that opportunity presents itself, you've just got to execute."

Olson denies the notion that he calls plays more conservatively when in scoring position.

Bucs tight end Jerramy Stevens caught a 6-yard touchdown pass against Buffalo on Sept. 20, 2009, but he has gone 17 consecutive games without a touchdown reception. Stevens (6-foot-7 and 260 pounds) is not the only Bucs player who is seemingly underutilized.

Tampa Bay tight end John Gilmore does not have a reception this season, but Olson said their lack of red zone involvement is not by design.

"Last week, we had three tight ends in," Olson said. "We had Jerramy in, we had Kellen (Winslow) in and Gilmore in. The play was designed. We had a number of different options, but we had Jerramy Stevens on a fade route, which we felt like we were going to get man (coverage).

"If we didn't get it, we had Kellen, and we overshot him. Another opportunity there, and we've got to make that throw because Kellen will make that catch. It's more execution right now, but we'll still continue to go to those guys."

Tampa Bay will strive to score more touchdowns in the red zone.

Just expect the Bucs to proceed with caution.

"You've got to eliminate the turnovers, and then it's either touchdown or check down or take your three (points) and be able to get out of there," Morris said. "People are going to challenge us a little bit more because we have a young quarterback, so in some of those situations Freeman has been able to exploit that.

"He has to get better and better as he continues to develop and continues to grow."

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