TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Josh Freeman insists he doesn't feel any added pressure to lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the playoffs.
The 25-year-old is entering the final season of the contract he signed as the third quarterback selected in the 2009 NFL draft behind Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez.
He became the first 4,000-yard passer in franchise history last season, however his inconsistency also contributed to a poor stretch run that kept the Bucs out of the postseason for the fifth straight year.
"Every year you go in with the same goal," Freeman said. "I think every team in this league is trying to figure out a way to go to the Super Bowl and hopefully win the Super Bowl."
The reality is that despite upgrading a porous defense that nearly set a league record for yards allowed passing by trading for cornerback Darrelle Revis and signing safety Dashon Goldson in free agency, Freeman's play figures to be the key to Tampa Bay flourishing in the quarterback-driven NFC South.
The Bucs dropped five of six following a 6-4 start in 2012, finishing 7-9.
Second-year coach Greg Schiano raised eyebrows when he declared he wanted to increase the level of competition for jobs at every position, including quarterback. He says, though, that Freeman isn't looking over his shoulder at third-round draft pick Mike Glennon.
"I don't think it bothers Josh. He's a confident guy. He knows this is his team," Schiano said. "I think he's ready to go have a great year, and that's what we're working for."
Five things to watch as the Buccaneers, who haven't won a postseason game since winning the Super Bowl 10 years ago, try to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
1. WILL REVIS ISLAND BE THE SAME? The Bucs acquired the three-time All-Pro, generally regarded as the best cornerback in the league, in exchange for the 13th overall pick in this year's draft. They're counting on him to return from a knee injury that sidelined him most of last season with the New York Jets. Although Revis, who signed a six-year, $96 million contract, is confident he'll be ready for the Sept. 8 season opener against his old team, there's no guarantee he'll be the same dominating player — at least right away.
2. SECONDARY IS ONLY AS GOOD AS THE PASS RUSH: It's unusual to try to jumpstart a defense from the backfield forward. But regardless of the potential impact of Revis and Goldson, an All-Pro with San Francisco last season, improving the pass rush is a top priority after finishing with 27 sacks a year ago, third lowest in the league. And Schiano has to do it despite losing last season's sack leader, Michael Bennett, to free agency. Ends Adrian Clayborn, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, and Da'Quan Bowers, who began 2012 on the physically unable to perform list with a torn right Achilles tendon, will be asked to pick up the slack.
3. IS THERE ROOM FOR MUSCLE HAMSTER GROWTH? Late first-round draft pick Doug Martin made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, rushing for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns, while also finishing third in the NFL behind Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson with 1,926 total yards from scrimmage in 2012. The 5-foot-9, 215-pound running back who dislikes the nickname that followed him to the pros from Boise State thinks he can be even better this year, especially with guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph returning from injuries to bolster the offensive line.
4. THE SCHIANO FACTOR: The coach made national headlines early in his first season as a NFL head coach when Giants coach Tom Coughlin objected to Tampa Bay's defensive lineman plowing into New York's offensive line with Eli Manning lined up in victory formation during the closing seconds of a seven-point game. The NFL said the Bucs didn't violate any league rules. But the spat reinforced a perception of the former Rutgers coach as a tough-nosed disciplinarian determined to instill his philosophy into players. The Bucs have bought in.
5. NO MORE BARBER: The lone remaining link to the franchise's only Super Bowl championship retired in May after 16 seasons in which he had a club-record 47 interceptions, scored eight touchdowns and had 28 sacks while becoming the first player in NFL history with 40-plus interceptions and 25 or more sacks. Barber played 15 seasons at cornerback before making the transition to safety in 2012. His leadership will be missed on and off the field, although Goldson — signed to a five-year, $41.25 million deal — is expected to fill the void.
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