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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Deep thoughts becoming part of Bucs' mentality

Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 05:11 PM

On the morning after his team's 24-22 loss to the Redskins two weeks ago, Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano wrapped up his review of the game tape by concluding the outcome might have been different had Tampa Bay started throwing deep a little sooner.

It was the deep ball, after all, that sparked their second-half comeback, quarterback Josh Freeman hitting on throws of 65, 54, 22 and 19 yards to set up the three scores that gave the Bucs the late 22-21 lead they squandered during the Redskins' final drive.

"We probably needed to take a few more shots in the first half of that game,'' Schiano said.

He also has good reason to consider taking a few more shots during the second quarter of the season, which starts today when Tampa Bay faces the Kansas City Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium.

Though Freeman has struggled to find his rhythm – he ranks 26th in the league in passer rating and 31st in completion percentage – he seems to have found a comfort zone throwing the ball downfield. Through four games, Freeman has completed 13 passes of 20 yards or more, on pace to better not only last season's total of 38 but his career-best total of 49 in 2010.

And while Freeman's average gain per pass attempt of 6.64 yards ranks 26th in the league, his average length per completion of 8.05 yards ranks seventh, ahead of such notables as Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Eli Manning.

None of this should come as any great surprise. NFL scouts have exalted Freeman's arm strength and ability to make big plays downfield since he became the starter at Kansas State University during his freshman season in 2006.

And while the deep throw is not necessarily Freeman's favorite – "to be honest, I like the play that works best,'' he said – it is one of the plays he is most confident making and believes he executes best.

"I have always felt like that's been a strength of mine,'' Freeman said. "All the way through college I felt that way and then you get into the league, and I've hit deep balls over the years, too.''

Never quite like this, though.

Freeman didn't complete his 13th pass of 20 yards or more last season until his seventh game. And it's not like his receivers are turning short throws into long gains. Though Freeman's season-best, 65-yard pass got an extension from the jukes receiver Mike Williams made after the catch, the Bucs rank 30th in the league with a 4.11 yards-after-catch average.

That means Freeman is doing a lot of the heavy lifting on his own, not only picking out the targets but accurately hitting them with precision throws that can be caught in stride.

Freeman is quick, though, to credit his receiving corps, as well as his offensive line, for his success throwing the ball downfield. It is arguably the deepest group of pass catcher's he's had.

"Throwing the deep ball, it's something that, when it's there, I definitely feel like I can make happen, especially now with Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams and the way those guys are playing,'' Freeman said.

"And then you turn it over to the flip side and we also have speed threats in Tiquan Underwood and Arrelious (Benn). We have a lot of players that can really go and get it.''

Williams ranks first in the league with an average of 19.9 yards per catch, while Jackson ranks fourth at 19.0. Remarkably, the pair has produced those numbers without the benefit of a sound running attack, which usually creates deep passing opportunities in the first place.

The Bucs average 3.6 yards per carry, which is more than half a yard off the league average, and 91 yards per game, which ranks 24th in the league.

Tampa Bay has been committed to the run, though. Until the Redskins game, the Bucs were among just six teams to run the ball more than they throw it, and that commitment has helped created the deep-pass opportunities.

"I definitely think our run game has set us up for those big pass plays,'' receivers coach P.J. Fleck said. "When you get eight guys in the box that truly want to stop the run, that's when you have the opportunities to throw it downfield.

"And the last two games, especially, we've had that. We've had that man coverage with (a) single (safety playing deep) and we've been able to throw down the field and I think it's because more people are respecting our run game.''

Jackson has long been respected in the league for his ability to get deep and make big plays. That's one of the reasons the Bucs signed him to a five-year, $55.5 million deal last spring, and he's only enhanced the reputation this season.

Of Freeman's 13 deep completions, seven were to Jackson, including throws of 54, 41 and 29 yards. Jackson will tell you, though, not every quarterback in the league has the Freeman's ability – and he's not just talking about arm strength – to connect consistently.

"A lot of times when you get those longer touchdowns, those deep balls come when the quarterback can buy some time,'' Jackson said. "So, the fact that Josh can move around makes a lot of that possible.''

An increased emphasis on the deep ball is not only possible for the Bucs in the coming weeks, it's probable. Tampa Bay clearly has the personnel for it and Schiano has made no secret of his passion for it.

Schiano always intended for his offense to run the ball to set up deep play-action throws downfield. After a week of tweaking their offense, the Bucs seem serious about incorporating more deep throws into their attack.

"We have a quarterback that can throw the deep ball and we've got a couple of receivers that can run on the deep ball, so that may warrant us being a little more inclined to take those shots,'' offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said.

"Those are things that, as you take a look at our first four games and evaluate what we can do better to find (the offensive) balance we want, we think that ability to make the big play downfield is going to help our run game and help our offense.''

And if it can help the Bucs win a little more often, all the better.

rcummings@tampatrib.com (8131) 259-7979 Twitter: RCummingTrib