Colts Bucs Monday Night Preview

JOSH FREEMAN OFF TO A DISAPPOINTING START IN 2011 FOR TAMPA BAY

There's not much reason to talk about the Indianapolis Colts right now. They're either going to tank their way to the #1 draft pick and Andrew Luck...or they're not. If it ever becomes clear that they're going to start winning some games...then we can focus on what they're doing. That leaves Tampa Bay in the spotlight heading into tonight's MNF matchup on ESPN. Let's check on Josh Freeman and the Bucs.

Yesterday we talked about the shaky play so far of Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets. Freeman is another young quarterback with a promising future who isn't exactly setting the world on fire so far in 2011. In fact, he ranks BEHIND Sanchez in passer rating and most relevant composite numbers. Tampa Bay is 2-1 anyway because they've won a couple of close games.

  • Tampa Bay beat Minnesota 24-20, after falling behind 17-0 in the first half. The Bucs won this game despite getting outgained 398-335.

  • Tampa Bay beat Atlanta 16-13, despite getting outgained 325-295.

If wins were based on yardage, Tampa Bay would be 0-3 rather than 2-1 heading into tonight's game...and everyone would be talking about a disastrous start rather than the playoff chase. As you handicap the ESPN matchup...it's important to have a true sense of what Tampa Bay and Freeman have accomplished so far.

This isn't a 10-6 caliber playoff team at the moment...this is more of a .500 caliber coin flip team who has to win close games to be taken seriously. Tough to do that on purpose week in and week out (though it's expected to be easier tonight of course against the very weak Colts). And, perhaps most importantly...Freeman isn't taking steps forward as he matures.

FREEMAN SO FAR
28-43-1-259 vs. Detroit...for a passer rating of 79.5
22-31-1-243 at Minnesota...for a passer rating of 91.2 (against a struggling team)
22-32-2-180 vs. Atlanta...for a passer rating of 56.8

We told you to take some air out of the yardage numbers for Sanchez yesterday because it's easier to put up big numbers in the air in the current game. Swing passes have replaced sweeps...meaning quarterbacks get credit for what are virtually extended handoffs a few times a game.

Well, Freeman doesn't have big numbers to take the air out of! At a time when even rookies like Cam Newton can make a run at 300, or even 400 passing yards in a single afternoon...Freeman has topped out at 259. His full season passer rating of 76.1 ranked 27th in the league entering the weekend. Look at the other names that were in that range heading into Sunday's action...

NFL PASSER RATING
26...Donovan McNabb 78.1
27...Josh Freeman 76.1
28...Tavaris Jackson 73.7
29...Sam Bradford 73.3

You haven't been hearing it from the media...but Freeman is down with the "Oh my god, that guy's been a disaster so far" group. Even with a fairly safe schematic that protects his completion percentage...Freeman has throw four interceptions through three games with just two touchdown passes.

The good news for Tampa Bay is that the NFC race may be wide open this year. The Bucs were seen as a potential Wildcard threat before the season started. Many of the other contenders have started slowly.

  • Philadelphia was supposed to be a super-team that was going to coast to the Super Bowl. They dropped two of their first three games...and have shown big problems with the linebacker corps on defense. There's no guarantee Michael Vick is going to stay healthy either.

  • Atlanta, last year's number one seed, also dropped two of its first three games. They were lucky to win so many close games last season. Luck is fickle in the NFL.

  • Chicago, last year's number two seed, ALSO dropped two of its first three games. We could see a lot of turnover from 2010 to 2011 in the NFC...even if some past powers like New Orleans move back into the mix.

Tampa Bay is far from the catbird's seat with a 2-1 record and a 10-point underdog coming to visit. They are sitting pretty at least for the time being. New Orleans shows up on the schedule twice in the next four games though. A road trip to San Francisco is far from a sure thing right now. Houston pops up after the second New Orleans game. You don't want to have 4-5 losses at the midway point of the season. So, Freeman better find an extra gear soon, even if he doesn't need it tonight.

And, frankly, there's a chance he's going to need it tonight! The Indianapolis defense has more than held its own through their troubled start. It's the shorthanded offense that's been the driving force behind the 0-3 opening (or...that an instructions from the top to lose!). Of note...

  • The Indy defense played better than the 34-7 final score would have suggested in Houston. Remember that the Colts offense kept setting Houston up for cheap points. Indy's defense held Matt Schaub to 217 yards passing and picked him off twice.

  • The Indy defense allowed only 303 yards and 4.5 yards-per-play to Cleveland the next week. Only one Browns TD came on a drive of 60 yards or more.

  • The Indy defense forced more turnovers against Pittsburgh in Week Three, allowing just 10 points on drives of 60 yards or more.

2011 has been a high scoring year so far...yet the Colts have allowed just 10-7-10 Drive Points out of the gate against a schedule featuring last year's AFC representative in the Super Bowl and an additional probable playoff team this year in Houston.

So...it's far from a sure thing that Josh Freeman is going to find his form tonight on ESPN. You don't have to be very good to outduel Curtis Painter. You probably have to play well to beat Curtis Painter by double digits though...particularly the way Indy's defense has performed to date.

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Don't forget that we have a baseball playoff doubleheader that will make your Monday even more profitable!

5:07 p.m. ET: Texas (Lewis) at Tampa Bay (Price)
8:07 p.m. ET: NY Yankees (Sabathia) at Detroit (Verlander)

That's Game Three in both series. Both Sabathia and Verlander started Game One in this series, but got washed out in the first inning. Bad luck for Detroit because Verlander could have been used in Games 1 and 5 had weather permitted (and had the series gone that far).

Texas and Tampa Bay are knotted up at one game apiece after splitting the first two games in Arlington. Texas sure had no trouble winning in Tampa Bay last year when these teams met in the divisional round.

We have a great one-time rate for those of you interested in signing up for the rest of the MLB postseason. You get a lot of bang for you buck with this package that takes you all the way through the World Series. The league championships and the Fall Classic are shaping up to be something special this season.

We'll crunch some numbers from the early baseball action in a special Tuesday edition of the NOTEBOOK. It's back to the NFL Wednesday to review key stats from the past week's action. Thursday we preview California-Oregon on ESPN as the Ducks try to get back into the BCS race. What horrible luck to have an early season game with LSU this year! Oregon could easily be the best one-loss team in the country.

Make sure you're with us EVERY DAY in the NOTEBOOK so you know what's really going on in the world of sports. And, LINK UP with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK to get THE BEST PLAYS MONEY CAN BUY!

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