In turnaround season, Bucs’ Freeman threatens Falcons

Coincidence or not, the parallels are striking.

In the season before Mike Sullivan took over as the New York Giants quarterbacks coach, Eli Manning fumbled the ball 13 times, losing eight. Over the next two seasons, Manning fumbled a total of 15 times, losing nine – roughly cutting that rate in half.

Fast forward to this season, his first as offensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Sullivan appears to be having a positive effect on another talented quarterback who has trouble holding onto the ball. Josh Freeman fumbled 27 times in his first three seasons, losing 10. This season, he has fumbled six times but lost only one.

Not surprisingly, when the Falcons visit Tampa Bay on Sunday in a key NFC South match-up, Freeman enters with the NFL’s No. 9 quarterback rating which lands him just a hair behind the Falcons’ Matt Ryan, 94.8 to 94.6. In addition, Freeman has vastly improved his touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio from 16-to-22 in 2011 to 21-to-7 this season, giving him among the fewest interceptions in the league among quarterbacks who have started all of their teams’ games.

Those are major reasons why the Bucs, who lost their final 10 games of the 2011 season, are 6-4 and firmly in the NFC playoff hunt. While catching the 9-1 Falcons for the division crown seems like a tall order, Tampa Bay’s two games remaining with Atlanta gives the Bucs a legitimate chance of doing so.

Greg Schiano, the head coach at Rutgers University for the previous 11 seasons, said that from what he saw on tape the biggest difference in Freeman’s performance has been cutting down on turnovers.

“He’s been doing a really good job — Sunday wasn’t his best effort, as far as protecting the football — but he’s been doing a very good job of taking care of the ball and when you do that, you give yourself a chance to win,” Schiano said of Freeman, who threw two interceptions in a 27-21 overtime win last Sunday over Carolina, the first time in five games that Freeman threw an interception. “On top of that, look at the talent he has and the throws he has made and the things he’s done leading our offense.

“That’s what’s given us a chance to win games. We’ve won some games and we haven’t won others, but when you the turn the ball over, it’s awfully hard, as anybody knows.”

Since Freeman took over as the Bucs’ starter in his rookie season of 2009, he has a 1-5 mark against the Falcons but with the exception of the 2012 season finale, almost all of the games have been within at least 10 points.

The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Freeman has a big arm and has hurt the Falcons with deep throws. For his size, he possesses excellent mobility, which makes him difficult for defenders to bring down.

This season, the Buccaneers have added a potent running game in the form of rookie Doug Martin, as they rank ninth in the NFL in rushing yards per game. Also, signing Vincent Jackson, whose 863 receiving yards rank him 10th in the league, has given Freeman a top receiver that he previously lacked. If Falcons starting cornerback Asante Samuel, who did not practiced the first two days of the week with an injured shoulder, but did practice today on a limited basis, cannot play, Atlanta will be at a further disadvantage against Freeman and the Bucs’ passing attack.

“I don’t think he’s taking off and running as much,” Falcons head coach Mike Smith said of Freeman’s improvement. “When he does, he’s running effectively. I’m not seeing as many negative yardage plays. I think that he’s doing a good job of getting the ball out of his hands and I think that the weapons that they’ve added, Vincent Jackson and Doug Martin, have helped their offense immensely.”

In terms of running the ball better, a couple of Falcons defenders said they thought Freeman had lost more weight. Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said he saw Freeman over the summer and noticed the change.

“I would say he’d be more mobile than he would’ve been in past years,” DeCoud said. “Because he’s a little more slender, I think he can move around a little bit better.”

Freeman noted that last season was disappointing. His quarterback rating dropped from 95.9 in ‘10 as the Bucs went 10-6 to 74.6 in ’11 as they lost their final 10 games of the season. Nonetheless, he disagreed with the notion that losing weight has helped him.

“I can’t really say that that had any direct effect,” he said, “but I think it was really just the addition of a few guys. Coming together, we made a collective effort to go out and be a good football team. Coach Schiano has done an awesome job of putting us in situations to win and then… coach Sullivan, his offense, he’s done an awesome job.

“This is his first year calling the plays, but he does an amazing job, putting us, like coach Schiano, putting our offense in positions where we can make some big plays or we can stay in manageable third downs and where we can score some points.”

In terms of helping Freeman, Schiano referenced the discipline brought by Sullivan, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. Schiano said he did not know Sullivan before he hired him, but that they had common acquaintances. (Both men coached teams separated by 40 miles during an eight-year period.)

Schiano also said he got to know Freeman before hiring his staff and thought that Sullivan would be a good fit for Freeman.

“I did think that Mike had exactly the right temperament, not only to coach a guy, Josh, but to guide the entire offense,” he said. “He’s a great teacher, he’s a discipline guy that can get his message and his vision across to his unit and his coaches and he’s done a real good job.”

Schiano and Freeman both said that after losing three of their first four games, the repetition of a new offense and greater comfort level with it have helped the Bucs to win five out of their last six games, including four in a row. A win over the Falcons could put them in sole possession of a wildcard spot – not to mention in better position to threaten Atlanta for a division title.