*The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' young quarterback, Josh Freeman, has caught the eye of the Atlanta Falcons. Although he's young, he plays with a fearlessness that reminds them of their own signal caller, and he's got the wins to prove it this season. On Thursday, the Falcons discussed what they see in Freeman and other Bucs players, and new running back Gartrell Johnson looked back on his first play of the 2010 season. *
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. —He may be young, but he's got the respect of the Falcons.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 22-year-old quarterback is only 16 starts into his NFL career, but he's already gotten a reputation for being a tough quarterback to defend, and his reputation for fourth-quarter game-winners is growing.
Freeman and the Bucs are tied for sixth in the league with 24 pass plays that go for 20 yards or more, and Atlanta knows with its recent struggles with explosive plays, the quarterback will have his eyes deep down the field a little more than usual.
"I feel like he's got enough confidence where he's not afraid to take the deep ball," safety William Moore said Thursday. "He might have a call where he needs to check down, but he's one of those guys if he sees somebody open, he's launching it."
The Falcons secondary will be tested with Freeman under center, and the 2009 first-round pick with the big arm won't waste any time seeing if Atlanta's bye week was well spent preparing for him and his offense. While the Falcons' defense knows the quarterback is young, it knows part of the game plan will be to see if Atlanta can defend the Bucs' deep plays.
"He may stare a little bit, but if it's not there right away, he's good for tucking it and getting what he can," safety Thomas DeCoud said. "But also, he'll try us deep and challenge us and see how well we play the deep ball."
Moore, DeCoud and the other members of the defensive backfield will have to remain patient in their coverages as the scrambling Freeman waits for things to break down in the defense or unfold in the offense. In short, Atlanta knows they'll have to try to contain him in the pocket, but if he breaks free they'll need to be able hold up defensively.
"For us, when he extends the play, especially for the defensive backs, you've got to extend your clock because he's going to keep the play alive," head coach Mike Smith said.
To Atlanta's advantage, a quarterback who is consistently looking down the field is prone to taking big risks in hopes of big rewards. While Freeman has only thrown three interceptions this season, the Falcons believe their aggressive secondary can take advantage of his daring ways.
"You want that, especially with the people we've got back there," Moore said. "I feel like we have a great chance of going up and getting the ball whenever he puts it up. It comes down to who wants it the most."
Gartrell Goes:If Falcons fans thought the name Gartrell Johnson sounded familiar when the franchise signed him in late September, it's for good reason.
During the preseason of 2009, Johnson, then with the San Diego Chargers, ran for 59 yards against Atlanta, with a long run of 42, showing his blend of speed and power in the running game.
When running back Jerious Norwood was placed on injured reserve earlier this season, Johnson was signed to help fill the team's third running back role with Antone Smith.
While he's a native of Miami, Fla., Johnson had never had a chance to experience the South until his time with the Falcons. After playing his college career at Colorado State and then a stop with the New York Giants after the Chargers, Johnson has enjoyed his time with Atlanta.
"It's been great," Johnson said. "They've welcomed me with open arms, that great southern hospitality. It's been good. It's been a blessing."
After being inactive for four weeks, Johnson had an opportunity to shine in Week 7 against the Bengals and he made the most of it. He knows as one of the team's third running backs his opportunities will be limited, but he'll get his chances.
In the second quarter, needing a yard for a first down, Johnson was inserted into the game for a play that was drawn up for him. Johnson knew the coaches wanted to see what he could do and he answered with a 23-yard run.
"It was a toss from Matt and I turned the corner," Johnson said of the play. "I wish I could have scored on it, but it was good. It was third-and-1. We got them in overload and we executed it well."
Johnson was in the game because of a shoulder injury to Smith, but as Smith improves (full participation at practice on Thursday), Johnson knows his chances may even be more limited. But for now, he approaches each day knowing he's got to earn his keep.
"It's just part of being a professional" Johnson said. "You've got to come out and work hard every day. No matter what the decision is going to be, you never know what is going to happen, but you've got to be a professional."
Capable Kellen:The Falcons face another elite tight end this week in Tampa Bay's Kellen Winslow, and in many ways he's even more dangerous than the others they've faced in previous weeks because of the unique ways the Bucs use him.
With the speed to run like a receiver, Winslow sometimes finds himself as the slot receiver, exploiting matchups with linebackers and the secondary. Moore and slot corners Brian Williams and Chris Owens will be critical in defending the tight end.
"Another great tight end this week," Moore said. "I've got to over-prepare. He's athletic. He's one of those fast guys that runs like a receiver. We've got some great things going on this week, but we've got to execute the call and I think we'll be fine."
As Williams returns to health after an ACL injury last season, he's beginning to see more and more action on the field. Smith welcomes his veteran presence to his secondary and believes he's a big part of the picture against the Bucs.
"Brian's getting back into it," Smith said. "Of course, coming back from the knee surgery, it's not even been a year. I think it's close to a year post-op because his injury was in the fifth game, but he didn't have the surgery for a couple of weeks. It's good to see Brian back out there. He's an experienced player who understands our system. I think he'll help us as we go down the stretch, he'll definitely help us this week."
Williams thinks his size can help him defend Winslow out of the slot, despite a possible edge in speed. The veteran corner doesn't believe anything changes for him defending the slot with different players and skill sets running routes from that position.
"He can run," Williams said. "He's somewhat freakish. He can run. He's strong. You just have to use your technique and whatever the defense is called, just know where your help is. I'm a pretty big corner myself, so nothing really changes."
Even with Freeman leading the offense, the emergence of the young wide receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn and an improving running game, Atlanta believes the tight end is still the focal point of the offense. They know if they don't focus on him on every play, he'll damage them with his ability to run after the catch.
"He's still the main event for that offense," DeCoud said. "Their wide receivers have been playing well as of late. He's one of the best tight ends in the league. He's going to get the ball thrown his way. We can't act like he's not going to be out there because they're going to target him at some point."