Even before Josh Freeman lofted a beautiful 64-yard pass over the entire Raiders defense to Vincent Jackson to start the second quarter on Sunday, the Buccaneers QB had already recorded nine other completions of 40 or more yards in 2012. Tampa Bay’s passing attack has had a remarkable big-play element this year, averaging 8.1 yards per attempt, but there was something a little different about that Freeman-Jackson hookup against the Raiders.
Of those first nine 40+-yard bombs, six of them had come on first-and-10 and another two had come on second down. Only one of the nine had arisen out of the ashes of the usually depressive third-and-long scenario – the 62-yard catch by Tiquan Underwood against Kansas City that only happened after Underwood tipped the ball up in the air and caught the deflection over the fallend defender.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Obviously, defenses back up on third-and-longs and guard against the big play, and/or they blitz and try to force a quick throw underneath. Many deep passes are the product of surprise; a defensive back is more likely to bite on a short fake when he’s trying to keep the offense from getting an eight-yard gain on first-and-10.
But it was third-and-15 when the second quarter started, the product of a holding penalty just before the teams switched sides. The Raiders should have been – and were – guarding against the deep ball on that play. Bucs Offensive Coordinator Mike Sullivan called a deep pass anyway, and there are three reasons the play worked. One, the offensive line did a marvelous job in protection. Two, Jackson sold the deception well. And, three, Freeman is brimming with confidence at the moment, and the coaches are confident in him.
“It was just a double-move on third-and-long,” said Jackson. “Whether we take a shot and complete it or not, we were backed up and going to punt it. Coach believes in us, believes in Josh’s arm and I just gave the safety a good move. Between the safety and the corner they both bit up on it, and Josh just gave me a chance.”
Honestly, it looked like a broken play because it took so much time to develop. Jackson didn’t make his “up” move until he was already quite deep, and by this time Freeman had scanned much of the field. But Freeman was waiting for a chance to go over the top, and the offensive line gave it to him.
“Initially the safety got really deep and Vincent did a great job of selling one route and then breaking deep on the other one,” said Freeman. “That was one of the plays that really stands out in my mind where the offensive line gave me about five seconds to stand back there. Really it’s like your thinking you’ve got to move because it’s so late within the down, but really there’s nowhere to go, you’re not really sensing anything and that was one where you just lay it out there and Vincent goes and gets it.
“I think the offensive line is doing a tremendous job of holding up; there were a number of plays today when I was sitting back there, they let me see things downfield and I get the ball in Mike and Vincent’s hands.”
How rare was that play? It marked just the fourth time all year, in 21 tries, that the Bucs had converted a third down of more than 10 yards. Another comparative note: As hot as Carson Palmer and the Raiders’ passing attack was on Sunday, they were 0-6 trying to convert third downs of more than 10 yards. It’s simply a low-percentage opportunity, but it would be more like a no-percentage opportunity if Freeman wasn’t coming into his own and feeling more and more comfortable with his blockers and his receivers.
“He’s playing smart football,” said Jackson of Freeman. “Obviously, physically he can make every play, and you see it running routes when he gets under pressure a little bit. It’s fun to see him play. He’s getting better each and every week, he’s having fun, and he’s learning a lot.”