Craig: Stretching field suddenly might not be a stretch for Vikings

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 9, 2013 - 1:07 PM

Josh Freeman’s size and arm strength intrigues team officials.

Here are some numbers that will make Adrian Peterson smile if former Buccaneers first-round draft pick Josh Freeman does indeed unseat Christian Ponder as the next leading prospect in the Vikings’ ongoing quest to unearth a long-term franchise quarterback:

16.3: The percentage of carries (52 of 319) in which Bucs running back Doug Martin faced eight or more defenders in the box while rushing for 1,454 yards a year ago. That, according to ProFootballFocus.com, ranked 27th in the league among backs with at least 100 carries. Peterson ranked third at 34.5 percent (120 of 348).

1.7: Martin’s average per carry in his first game without Freeman’s big arm as a balancing complement. With Freeman benched and about to be released, Martin rushed for 45 yards on 27 carries in a 13-10 loss to the Cardinals two weeks ago. Rookie quarterback Mike Glennon’s longest pass that day: A 20-yard dump to the fullback that traveled 6 yards in the air.

12: Combined catches for 40 yards or more by Bucs receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams a year ago. Each had six, tying them for second in the league, one behind Cincinnati’s A.J. Green. Jackson led the league in average yards per catch (19.2) despite being only 20th in yards after the catch (398 of 1,384). The Vikings’ entire team had only three catches of at least 40 yards last season.

9: Plays of 60 yards or more for the Bucs a year ago, a franchise record. Seven of them were Freeman deep balls.

57: Completions of 20 yards or more by the Bucs a year ago. The Vikings had 28.

Get the picture?

No, Freeman isn’t the savior all by himself. He’s 24-35 with no playoff appearances since the Bucs picked him 17th overall in 2009. But his strongest strength — the ability to throw the deep ball on time with zip and accuracy — matches the weakest weakness in a Vikings offense screaming out for a consistent deep ball to complement Peterson.

According to ProFootballFocus.com, a league-low 7.5 percent of Ponder’s 2012 passes were thrown at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Of those, a league-low 25 percent were completed.

Obviously, there were other variables besides Ponder in those numbers. But the Vikings believe Freeman’s bigger stature [6-6, 240], ability to extend plays and stronger arm will help overcome other deficiencies when it’s time to stretch the field.

Freeman isn’t known as the most gifted reader of defenses. He struggles with check-down passes and touch on intermediate throws. But give him a deep out off play-action to Peterson and chances are good the ball won’t be late and won’t have too much air under it.

Freeman’s career completion percentage is only 58.2 percent. But he completed 62.8 percent in his last year in a West Coast scheme (2011) before coach Greg Schiano arrived with an offense that put more emphasis on the deep ball.

Freeman was completing only 45.7 percent this year, but, like all quarterbacks, it wasn’t entirely his fault. He had two touchdown passes dropped by receivers, including a 38-yarder, in the 23-3 loss to the Patriots in Week 3.

“I think he is very talented as a passer,” Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said. “I watched all his college tape. I watched probably 40 games this weekend on him.

‘‘I watched him live twice, what he did to us in the Metrodome [three touchdowns, no interceptions in a 36-17 upset a year ago] and what he did to us a few years ago when we played him. I know that he is a big quarterback with a strong arm that can do a lot of good things at all levels of the field.”

And if Freeman doesn’t pan out? The Vikings have nothing to lose but $3 million of owner Zygi Wilf’s money. It didn’t cost the Vikings any draft pick to take a three-month look at a former first-round draft pick who is only 25, 43 days older than Ponder.

Meanwhile, in Tampa Bay, the pressure is on Schiano to prove Glennon is the long-term answer. Otherwise, based on what might happen in Minnesota, Schiano could be remembered as a coach who let emotion affect his decision-making process at the game’s most important position.

Asked what his 0-4 team was trying to improve on coming out of last week’s bye, Schiano told reporters, “I think throwing the ball down the field some more.”

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  • When Josh Freeman had success throwing deep, Buccaneers running back Doug Martin (22) benefitted from fewer defenders at the line of scrimmage. Presumably, that’s what the Vikings hope can happen with Adrian Peterson lining up behind Freeman.

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