Late in the first quarter of Sunday’s game at Raymond James Stadium, the visiting Chargers had a 14-7 lead and looked to be on the verge of forcing a punt from deep inside Buccaneer territory. A three-yard Doug Martin run on the last play of the opening period left the Bucs facing a very difficult third-and-12 when the second quarter began.
Third-and-12 is not a value proposition for an offense. The league average on all third downs of 10 or more yards is just a 21.0% conversion rate. Putting the numbers aside, it’s fairly obvious that long third downs are tough to convert because opposing defenses can specifically guard against longer passes and still be able to come up and stop runs or short throws in time.
On this particular play, however, Josh Freeman and the Buccaneers bucked the odds in a big way. Freeman took the snap and stood in the pocket for a very long time, enjoying remarkable protection. Eventually, Mike Williams completed a long-developing route with a double move past the back end of the Charger defense and Freeman threw over the top for a 54-yard gain. The Bucs used that big gain to tack on a field goal and avoid falling into a deep hole.
That play was incredibly similar to the 64-yard completion Freeman threw to Jackson on third-and-15 on the first play of the second quarter in Oakland a week earlier. And it is plays like those two that have made Freeman the most lethal third-down passer in the NFL over the last five weeks.
The Bucs’ offense has been the league’s best overall over that span, and Freeman deserves a lot of credit. The biggest difference in his game, statistically, between the first four games before Tampa Bay’s bye week and the last five (of which the Bucs have won four) is his success on third down.
After four weeks, Freeman was only the 21st-ranked passer in the league on third downs, with a rather pedestrian rating of 74.4. Fast-forward to the beginning of Week 11, and Freeman is now fifth-best in that category, trailing only Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Michael Vick. Here are some of the relevant statistics for the only five QBs in the league with a rating over 100.0 on third downs this year:
Again, Freeman has shot up that chart with a nearly flawless performance over the last five weeks. Here are the top five on the same table since Week Six of the NFL season:
Most notable on that list is Freeman’s incredible yards-per-attempt figure, which is more than two yards better than any other quarterback in the league in that span. And, according to Bucs Head Coach Greg Schiano, that’s not a matter of forcing the ball deep but of knowing the offense and taking what is available.
“I think he understands better what we are doing, what we are asking of him, and he is playing within himself,” said Schiano. “He’s not trying to make plays, he’s trusting his training and executing what he has been trained to do. Plays come, when you are as talented as Josh Freeman is, and as talented as we are at wideout, tight end and running back.”