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Mike Spofford

Mike Spofford has worked as a sportswriter in Wisconsin since 1995 and has been a packers.com staff writer since 2006. He has covered the Packers' last two Super Bowl appearances, XXXII and XLV.

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Bucs' quarterback tough to bring down

Posted Nov 18, 2011

If the Packers defense decides to dial up the pressure on Sunday as it did last week, the Buccaneers will have a legitimate counter in Josh Freeman, a 6-foot-6, 248-pound quarterback that can move.

“Ginormous kid,” Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson said of Freeman, his quarterback in college at Kansas State.

Statistically speaking, Freeman is one of the toughest guys to sack. The Buccaneers have allowed only 15 sacks all season, tied for lowest in the NFC with Dallas, and they rank fourth in the league in percentage of pass plays resulting in sacks.

Those numbers are a result of three factors, and two of them are Freeman: a solid offensive line, plus the quarterback’s size and mobility. His large frame allows him to fight off tacklers, while his athleticism helps him scramble when he needs to.

“I think it was evident when he played against us two years ago,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said of the difficulty of sacking Freeman. “He’s a big man. He steps out of tackles. He reminds you a little bit of Ben Roethlisberger. He generates first downs with his feet.”

In that 2009 game in Tampa, which was Freeman’s first NFL start, he was sacked just once in 36 drop-backs and scrambled four times for 20 yards. This year, he hadn’t been sacked more than twice in a game all season until last week, when Houston got him four times.

“It’s hard to get to him, and once you get to him, to get him down, that’s a whole other problem,” defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. “You see guys getting back there free, and they just melt off of him. He’s a strong, strong kid.”

With only 34 rushing attempts on the season, Freeman is not a constant scrambler and isn’t in the same “running quarterback” mold as Carolina’s Cam Newton (70 rushes) or Philadelphia’s Michael Vick (65), but pass-rushers must still be wary.

“You definitely have to rush in your right lanes and crowd the pocket,” defensive end Jarius Wynn said. “You don’t want to leave the open window for him to make the run or throw.”

Wynn’s choice of phrase there is keen – crowd the pocket – as in, get more than one rusher into the backfield. Against one defender, Freeman can shake him or get away.

The Packers’ array of blitzes in last week’s game against Minnesota often produced a defensive back running free at quarterback Christian Ponder, and the Vikings struggled to find any rhythm on offense. The defensive performance is being viewed as a potential turning point in 2011 for the Packers.

Freeman should be physically more equipped to cope with one extra rusher coming at him, so for the Green Bay defense to put together two strong outings in a row, it may not be as easy as repeating last week’s pressure plan.

“If you blitz and you don’t get him, then you’re kind of exposed,” safety Charlie Peprah said. “We’ll have to pick and choose when we want to do that, and when we do blitz, we’ve got to get him on the ground.”

Possible Neal debut: Defensive end Mike Neal (knee) is listed as questionable on the injury report, and McCarthy said a decision would be made on Saturday whether Neal would make his 2011 season debut.

Neal practiced on a limited basis all week, doing more each day, per the plan. McCarthy plans to meet on Saturday with Neal and defensive coaches Dom Capers and Mike Trgovac to decide the best course of action.

“You just want to make sure, whether it’s this week or next week when you bring him up, that he’s ready,” McCarthy said. “We’ll have to put another player down (on the inactive list), and we’re relatively healthy, so we would be putting a healthy player down.”

McCarthy said the fact the Packers play again in four days on Thanksgiving wouldn’t influence the decision on Neal for Sunday.

“It’s not a factor at all. If he’s ready and he can contribute to this game, we’ll have him up,” McCarthy said. “He’s had a chance to go through a full week of preparation. He knows everything that we’ll be asking of him if he did play. We’ll look at him tomorrow and see how he is.”

Outside linebacker Frank Zombo (hamstring) has been ruled out for Sunday’s game, and McCarthy said he’s “getting close” to returning.

Additional coverage - Nov. 18

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