The Carolina Panthers have the highest-rated pass rush (in terms of sacks per pass play) that the Buccaneers have faced this season. And, sure enough, in their Week One meeting, Carolina was able to sack Josh Freeman as many times as he’s been dropped in a game all season.
That’s right: Nine games into the 2012 season, the Buccaneers have not allowed Freeman to take more than two sacks in any game yet. Specifically, he has been sacked twice in four of the games and just once in five of them, including each of the last three.
That is very impressive pass protection, especially considering that four fifths of the team’s starting line has changed since opening day. Right now, the team is on pace to allow 23 sacks in 2012, which would be its lowest single-season total since posting the same number in 2003.
“It’s just a team effort, and it’s kind of everybody getting more familiar with the offense,” said Freeman, explaining the relative lack of sacks he’s had to endure. “We’ve given up a number of sacks this year that I can say were my fault, you know? And getting the ball out [helps], not necessarily waiting on a route but getting off, checking the ball down, just a number of things that you get better at throughout the year from experience and in practice. We drill a lot of stuff, a lot of blitz drills, a lot of work as far as moving forward, getting the ball out and it’s been great because there have been times where we’ve needed the o-line to protect for three, four seconds and you know they’ve answered the bell. They’ve stepped up to the challenge and made it happen.”
It really has been a remarkable run for the Bucs’ pass protection, and that has helped Freeman put together a breakout season. The last time a Tampa Bay team went nine straight games without once allowing two sacks in a single outing was all the way back in 1998.
The Bucs have had to replace both of their Pro Bowl guards, Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks, who were lost to season-ending injuries. Now they may be without one of those replacements, as starting right guard Jamon Meredith is dealing with an ankle injury he sustained in practice on Wednesday. Former reserves have stepped up and played well because they have made sure they are prepared.
“They work awfully hard,” said Meredith of the O-Line group. “It’s not like they lucked into their performance, they’ve earned it and they have to keep earning it. Now if Jamon can’t play, it’s another new guy. The old saying is, ‘Adversity reveals character.’ I think we have some guys there with some strong character and its being tested for sure.”
Schiano also praised Freeman for his work in staying out of bad situations, and Offensive Coordinator Mike Sullivan’s well-timed use of running backs and tight ends for extra protection. The heart of it, Schiano says, is “five offensive linemen battling their guts out.”
Freeman believes he’ll get that same protection this Sunday in Charlotte, even if the lineup is shuffled once again.
“Within our organization everybody has a job to do, whether you’re the starter at the beginning of the season or you don’t pick up until week 11,” he said. “Either way I know those guys are going to go out and put forth their best effort and I’ve got a lot of confidence in that group.”