Tampa Bay Buccaneers opponents are getting used to an unfortunate sight: the Josh Freeman deep ball. Freeman hit on two more 30-plus yard passes against the Chargers in Sunday's victory, this 54-yard dart to Mike Williams and this 31-yard strike to Vincent Jackson.
Freeman has now completed 32 deep passes (at least 15 yards downfield) for 1,064 yards, five touchdowns and just one inteception, accounting for nearly 70 expected points added. All this has come in just 68 attempts -- Freeman is averaging 15.6 yards per deep attempt and over an expected point per throw.
We shouldn't be surprised. Freeman made his way into the first round of the 2009 draft despite mediocre college numbers, mostly thanks to his size and the arm strength that comes with it. He was compared to players like Daunte Culpepper and Ben Roethlisberger -- huge quarterbacks who (at least at one point in their careers) made a living off the deep ball.
For some reason, Freeman and the Bucs never really embraced the deep ball before this season. Freeman went deep on just 14 percent of passes last season, dead last among 39 qualified quarterbacks. He threw deep less often then players like Tyler Palko, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kyle Orton and Matt Hasselbeck -- inexplicable, given the respective skill sets. Chad Pennington threw 18.7 percent deep passes in 2008, his last full season.
This seems to be the major revelation of the Greg Schiano-Mike Sullivan establishment in Tampa Bay: Josh Freeman has the fabled "big arm," so why not use it? This season, Freeman has gone deep on over a quarter of his pass attempts; his 25.3 percent ranks third in the league behind Joe Flacco and Andrew Luck. The concept isn't particularly difficult -- let Freeman drop back, and if the pocket holds, he has the arm to get it to the receiver down field.
The shift makes even more sense considering Freeman's lingering issues on short passes. Observe, Freeman's deep and short passes by EPA (chart lacks Week 7 data due to an issue; statistics cited in text include Week 7):
Note: There are a few blue incomplete marks in the positive end and some pewter complete marks on the well-negative end. That's not an error -- in most cases those are penalties marked with the initial play result
Freeman has thrown four of his five interceptions on short passes and has just 10 EPA and 1,163 yards in 205 short passing attempts -- just 5.7 yards per attempt. It seems like a truism that deep passes will have a higher yards per attempt than short ones. But considering the brutally low efficiency and the interceptions coming more often on the short passes than on those down the field, the difference is striking.
Even with the strides Freeman has yet to take, his proficiency with the deep ball has been enough to elevate him to second in AYPA at 6.8, behind just Peyton Manning's 7.0. He ranks 10th in expected points added and 15th in win probability added. His Bucs rank 13th in the efficiency ratings largely on the back of his passing efficiency -- a far cry from one of the league's worst squads last year and the one expected by many this season.
At 5-4 and riding a three-game winning streak, the Buccaneers have a legitimate chance at the playoffs despite facing five top-12 teams and four top-7 teams in the efficiency rankings down the stretch. If anything can power Tampa Bay through the gauntlet awaiting them, it's Josh Freeman's deep passing attack.