By Rick Stroud, Times Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2012
TAMPA — They crowded against the railing near the tunnel to the Bucs locker room, hoping a glove, hat or sweatband would be tossed their direction by players after Sunday's game.
But not every fan in that scrum was looking for a free souvenir.
Some were more into the giving spirit, hurling insults directly at Josh Freeman.
For the second game in a row, the Bucs quarterback threw four interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown in a 28-13 loss to the Rams.
The offense also was stopped twice on fourth down inside the Rams 10 in the fourth quarter. And for good measure, the defense allowed an 80-yard touchdown on the first play of the second half.
This is how the 2012 home finale ended: a fifth straight loss — guaranteeing a losing record (6-9) and fifth consecutive season without a playoff appearance — and the Bucs tied with Carolina in the cellar of the NFC South.
Every exclamation point for the Bucs five weeks ago has been replaced with a question mark. None bigger than Freeman.
His eight interceptions over the past two games are as many as he threw over the first 13.
"When he makes those plays, they're spectacular. Everybody is like, 'Wow! What a great play!' " Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "When he doesn't, now he's forcing it. We're in a results-driven business, and when it works, it's a great play. Then when it doesn't work: Is he pressing? Is he trying too hard? It's somewhere in between."
Freeman was left to rattle off his picks like Santa calling reindeer.
• On an inside comeback, Mike Williams slipped, allowing cornerback Janoris Jenkins to make an easy interception and return it 41 yards for a second-quarter touchdown that gave the Rams (7-7-1) a 7-3 lead.
• On a second-quarter pass to Vincent Jackson in the slot, linebacker James Laurinaitis dropped into a zone and got his head around in time.
• With the Bucs trailing 21-6 in the third, Williams allowed cornerback Trumaine Johnson to undercut his route.
• Tackle Michael Brockers tipped a fourth-quarter pass at the line of scrimmage, and end Eugene Sims caught the popup.
"I'm the quarterback," Freeman said. "You've got to put it on me. And I just have to find a way to limit those. When you have a team like us, who have been in a bit of a rut, you can't make those mistakes that cost you."
Freeman finished 30-of-54 for 372 yards and a touchdown. He also was sacked five times and hit on nine other occasions.
He was stopped for no gain on fourth and 1 at the Rams 5 after trying to rush his team to the line of scrimmage for a sneak. But officials were slow in placing the ball, giving the Rams time to line up.
"I blame myself," Schiano said. "I should've called a timeout."
The Bucs held a huge advantage in yards (429-285) and time of possession (35:59-24:01). But Rams quarterback Sam Bradford was efficient in passing for 196 yards and two touchdowns.
The biggest strike was an 80-yarder to tight end Lance Kendricks on the first play of the second half to make it 21-6. Linebacker Lavonte David bit on play-action, leaving the middle of the field open.
"That was a shame," Schianio said. "Without getting into guys and things, it was a mistake; a valuable lesson learned."
Meanwhile, the Bucs defense failed to take advantage of its opportunities. Cornerback Leonard Johnson caused a first-quarter fumble when he hit receiver Danny Amendola. But after scooping up the loose ball at the St. Louis 17, Johnson fumbled it back at the 5.
Afterward, Bucs players talked about what a great week of practice they had following last week's 41-0 shellacking by the Saints. But at least one player wasn't having any of that.
"It doesn't matter what you do Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. It's all about Sunday," defensive end Michael Bennett said. "You've got to get everybody on the team to understand that. The games are won on Sunday. You've got to come out and put your best foot forward and game up. This is a competitive league."
Schiano realizes his pleas for patience might be wearing thin.
"Right now, I'm not going to get into where we stack up," he said.
"I do say this to our fans: We have good players in this program. And we're going to get more, and we're moving forward."