Freeman looks to end Buccaneers' playoff drought

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman (5) looks to pass during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Miami Dolphins, Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

TAMPA, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent generously to upgrade a porous defense in hopes of giving Josh Freeman every opportunity to be successful.

The fifth-year pro is entering the final season of the contract he signed as a rookie in 2009. He likely needs to lead the Bucs to the playoffs to prove he's worthy of the hefty pay raise he could command next year.

Tampa Bay hasn't made the playoffs since 2007 and doesn't have a postseason victory since winning the Super Bowl 11 years ago.

"There's always going to be pressure, but it's all internal," Freeman said, shrugging off the notion that because of his contract status there's a greater sense of urgency to get the Bucs over the hump.

"When I look at things, look at what I want to be and who I want to be as a player, it exceeds everything that anybody else could hope for," the 25-year-old added. "When I leave the game, I want to be regarded as one of the best who ever played."

Freeman became the first passer in team history to throw for 4,000 yards in a season, and the Bucs offense also set club records for points, yards and touchdowns in 2012.

But the quarterback's inconsistency also contributed to a late-season slide that saw Tampa Bay lose five of six down the stretch to finish 7-9 and miss the playoffs for the fifth straight year.

The defense was a problem, too, with a leaky secondary and anemic pass rush factoring in the Bucs nearly setting a league record for passing yards allowed.

Enter cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson, offseason acquisitions expected to make a difference on defense. The Bucs hope their arrival will give Freeman and a potent offense featuring running back Doug Martin and receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams more opportunities to shine.

Revis, a three-time All-Pro who's recovering from knee surgery that sidelined him most of last season with the New York Jets, was obtained in exchange for the 13th overall pick in this year's draft and given a six-year, $96 million contract.

Goldson, an All-Pro last season in San Francisco, signed a five-year, $41.25 million deal as a free agent after helping the 49ers reach the Super Bowl.

"The organization did a good job of bringing guys in. ... I think we can get it done," Goldson said. "In San Francisco, it took time. Here, it's going to be the same way. We have a lot to build on coming off last year."

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Here are five things to watch as Freeman tries to lead Tampa Bay to the playoffs for the first time in his career.

REVIS ISLAND: Revis made a name for himself in six seasons with the Jets because of his ability to blanket some of the game's top receivers in single coverage. The Bucs have not rushed his return from knee surgery in hopes that keeping out of preseason games would enhance the chances of Revis being fully recovered for the Sept. 8 regular season opener against his old team.

SCHIANO IMPACT: Greg Schiano spent much of last season — his first as a NFL head coach — changing the culture within a team that lost its final 10 games under predecessor Raheem Morris. The Bucs improved from four wins two years ago to seven under Schiano, who's free now to focus on coaching rather than selling his program to the players. "The biggest thing is that we all understand each other," Schiano said. "This is who we are, this is what we are, this is how we do things, and this is how we're going to win." Schiano said. "The guys believe it. The staff does, I do, and I think there's a respect both ways."

RUN DOUGIE RUN: Second-year running back Doug Martin made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, rushing for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns, while also finishing third in the NFL behind Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson with 1,926 total yards from scrimmage. If Freeman is going to fulfill his potential, the Bucs have to continue to run the ball effectively.

WHO'S UP FRONT: The offensive line had a shaky preseason, allowing Tampa Bay's first three preseason opponents to sack Freeman nine times. The unit was expected to be a strength entering training camp, partly because of the anticipated return of injured guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph. Joseph is back. But Nicks is still recovering from toe surgery, and it's uncertain when he'll be ready play after being one of two Buccaneers diagnosed with MRSA infections.

THE PASS RUSH: Schiano brought in Revis and Goldson to address needs in the secondary, however another key to getting better defensively will be improving the pass rush. The Bucs had 27 sacks a year ago, third lowest in the league. Tackle Gerald McCoy is coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance, and Schiano is hoping to get more production out of young ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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