Buccaneers need to dial down confidence

Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman and Mike Williams have not been in sync this season. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

TAMPA, Fla. -- If you’ve watched Josh Freeman and Mike Williams this season, you might be wondering if the key members of Tampa Bay’s passing game have lost their confidence.

If you talk to the quarterback and wide receiver, you’ll quickly find out that’s not the case. In fact, the problem might be just the opposite.

“This week, you’re going to see the old Mike Williams back,’’ Williams said Wednesday.

No one who talks in the third person can be accused of having a lack of confidence. Freeman’s not the type to go third person on you, but he’ll flat out tell you that having too much confidence has been part of the reason he’s already thrown as many interceptions (six) as he did all last season.

“I have a lot of confidence back there,’’ Freeman said. “It’s maybe just a matter of me pulling back on some of these shots downfield that I want to take and looking to play another down, rather than making some mistakes.’’

That confidence is getting in the way of Freeman and Williams clicking the way they did last season, and it has disrupted Tampa Bay’s entire offense. Although the Bucs are off to a 3-2 start, the offense has yet to put together a consistently good game. That’s largely because Freeman and Williams haven’t had the smooth connection they did a year ago.

In 2010, when Williams was a rookie and Freeman was a first-year starter, there was an instant chemistry. Williams stepped up immediately as the No. 1 receiver and finished the season with 65 catches for 964 yards (a 14.8-yard average) and 11 touchdowns. This season, Williams has 19 catches for 183 yards (a 9.6-yard average and just one touchdown). Williams also is tied for No. 4 in the league with three drops on 37 targets.

There also have been some bad routes and an inability to get open against double teams.

“(Double teams are) nothing new to me,’’ Williams said. “It’s just I’ve got to step up. I’m playing terrible. From my aspect, I’m playing terrible. I should be doing a lot more to make my team win. I should be getting into the end zone.’’

Maybe Williams got a bit overconfident with how easy everything seemed as a rookie.

“I think Mike Williams forgets he’s a second-year player and 24 and all those things that we know as writers and coaches, he’s going to make mistakes,’’ coach Raheem Morris said. “He made mistakes last year, but he made plays that masked his mistakes. I don’t think he’s playing terrible. He’s just not playing to the caliber he played last year and, for him, that’s terrible.’’

Freeman’s going through some growing pains that also might seem terrible after his performance in a 10-6 season last year raised expectations for the quarterback and others. On the surface, Freeman simply looks like he’s not quite in rhythm.

Under the surface, there’s more going on. Part of it is his No. 1 receiver isn’t getting open. Part of it may be the play selection. Freeman’s got one of the league’s strongest arms, yet the Bucs haven’t been throwing down the field very often. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Freeman’s attempted just eight passes of 21 or more yards and he's completed only two of them. The only other regular starter to have thrown fewer deep passes is Indianapolis’ Kerry Collins (seven), and he’s missed two games due to injury.

On passes of 10 to 20 yards, Freeman ranks No. 31 in the league with a 36.4-percent completion rate (16-of-44 with three interceptions). It’s shocking to see that Freeman’s been at his best on short passes. On throws of less than 10 yards, his completion percentage is 76.2, which ranks No. 2 in the league. He's 96-of-126 for 813 yards on those plays.

Any scout will tell you that a quarterback with Freeman’s arm strength shouldn’t be dinking and dunking. He should be throwing for yards in big chunks. But Freeman said his inability to complete the long- and mid-range passes are the reason the passing game is out of sync.

“It’s a fine line,’’ Freeman said. “You’ve got this confidence. You have a good offseason. You study your opponent and you know what you’re going to see. And, then, whether it’s not making the throw or getting a little too geeked up and you try to force some things.’’

Having a young quarterback and a young wide receiver with too much confidence isn’t the worst problem in the world. The Bucs know that and they’re trying to work through it.

“With the confidence, you still have to have more responsibility,’’ Freeman said. “If you’re going to be taking shots down the field, you have to know when to take your chances and when not to. It’s something I’m working on. The good thing is it’s not like I’m just throwing blind into coverage. I see everything that I throw and it’s something that’s easily fixable.’’

Freeman and Williams both know what has to be fixed.

“I’ve got to get open,’’ Williams said. “I’ve got to forget the double teams. I’ve got to forget the frustration and catch the ball. Do what I do and that’s make some plays for this offense. That’s on me. I’m going to get that together.’’

Williams’ confidence is shining through, despite describing his play as "terrible." Freeman knows he has to keep his confidence under wraps when he’s deciding whether or not to go for the big play.

Neither of them needs to totally lose that confidence. It’s a good thing. But maybe Freeman and Williams need to remember how they got that confidence in the first place. Maybe they just need to think back to last year when confidence wasn’t even talked about.

Back then, Freeman and Williams just went out, had fun, didn't worry so much about making mistakes and the big plays flowed naturally. It can happen again.