Last season, the Buccaneers and Josh Freeman were able to find some success at times hitting their tight ends underneath in the passing game. Kellen Winslow and Luke Stocker had their moments, providing something in the passing game.
So far this season, the tight ends are hardly being featured in Mike Sullivan's offense and Freeman's struggles may be contributed to not having a safety valve underneath in passing downs. While the offense is still coming together and players are adjusting to the new playbook, the lack of use of tight end in the game could be the reason for the early struggles for Freeman.
First, start with the offensive scheme that Sullivan is running with Freeman to start the year. The Buccaneers are running the ball, establishing the line and then targeting receivers deep down the field, not throwing the quick underneath routes that Freeman was so comfortable with last season.
It is pretty clear to see with Freeman's progressions in the pass game that he isn't seeing the field that well and while waiting for receivers to get open down the field, he is getting knocked around. Freeman doesn't have the safety valve of a receiver underneath like he has had in the past to throw the ball to quickly to get yards and keep drives alive.
Last season, tight end Kellen Winslow, caught 75 passes for 763 yards and two touchdowns, continuing to be a favorite target for Freeman. There was baggage with Winslow and his attitude, the way the practiced, and overall age and health that bought him a ticket out of Tampa and now, without a familiar tight end in the lineup that is getting plays called for them, Freeman is struggling.
Last season, in the first three games of the year, Freeman found Winslow for six receptions for 66 yards in the first game, four for 44 in the second, and two for 20 in the third game, continuing to move the chains for the Buccaneers. Even Luke Stocker was a factor, catching 12 balls for 92 yards.
Coach Schiano sent traded Winslow to Seattle in the offseason as he came into town and established his regime, taking away that safety blanket for Freeman, but they did bring in veteran Dallas Clark to replace him, but so far, he has hardly been featured or targeted in the passing game.
The veteran Dallas Clark, despite some injuries the past few years and his overall age, was brought in to be the primary tight end, but hasn't been involved enough. So far, he has just six receptions over the three games for 66 yards. Stocker, who caught his first career touchdowns vs. Dallas, has just that one catch and youngster Danny Noble has yet to log any serious playing time.
Is finding the tight end the fix all for the offense? Of course not. The playcalling from Sullivan has been inconsistent so far, Freeman has struggled a lot in progressions and timing, and Clark and company haven't been screaming for the ball. Looking at the previous seasons, Freeman had had better numbers when he had plays designed to find the tight end underneath the coverage.
Is Clark the answer? Hard to tell at this stage. No one really knows what the veteran has left in the tank, but he has to produce or the offense has to find a way to get him, Stocker, and even Noble, involved in the offense.
Hopefully in the coming weeks, Freeman and the coaching staff will find more consistency and get the tight ends involved for him. Nothing fancy. Just short, underneath passes, at least something more than running on third down in close games.