Bucs letting Josh Freeman air it out

One of the more interesting things I’ve come across in this week’s package of numbers from ESPN Stats & Information is the category “air yards per attempt’’.

It’s basically self explanatory – how many yards quarterbacks are actually throwing the ball on their pass attempts. When it comes to the NFC South quarterbacks, I think the numbers are pretty interesting and tell a lot about the different offensive systems.

Let’s start with Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman because he’s near the top of the list in this category. Freeman ranks No. 3 in the league, averaging 9.9 yards of air time per attempt. Only Charlie Batch (11.2 yards) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (11.1 yards) have higher averages. This makes a lot of sense, because Freeman easily has the strongest arm of any quarterback in the division, and the Bucs need to continue showcasing that arm and letting Freeman throw downfield.

After Freeman, there’s a huge drop in this category before you get to the rest of the NFC South quarterbacks. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is second in the division, but tied for No. 24 while averaging 7.8 yards of air time on his passes. I think Ryan’s numbers get brought down a bit by the fact the Falcons throw a lot of short stuff to tight end Tony Gonzalez and a fair amount of passes to their running backs. But Ryan probably has the second-strongest arm in the division and good downfield targets in Roddy White and Harry Douglas. I’d like to see Ryan take some more shots downfield.

After Sunday’s game, New Orleans defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis pretty much summed up Carolina’s passing attack when he said an offense with a rookie quarterback is going to throw a lot of short passes. The numbers back that up. Carolina’s Jimmy Clausen’s attempts have averaged 6.5 yards, which ranks him No. 31.

Finally, it’s kind of stunning to look at any quarterback category and see New Orleans’ Drew Brees at No. 33. But, in this case, it is what it is. Even when everything’s working, Brees isn’t going to have a high average in this category because the Saints throw a lot of short and medium passes. This year, the Saints have admitted that defenses are throwing more soft zones at them to try to eliminate big plays. Brees has been throwing underneath more than usual and is averaging just 6.1 yards per attempt.