Dwight freeney stares at the green felt, incredulous, as he ponders an offer that seems too good to be true. "I can take three of my balls off the table?" the Indianapolis Colts' defensive end asks teammate Edgerrin James, as Freeney considers a potential eight-ball wager on a recent Monday night in a downtown Indy bar. "Any three?" ¬∂ "Go ahead," James says breezily. "Take four if you want." ¬∂ Four?
Though not as skilled with a cue as James, Freeney, who has had the numbers stacked against him throughout his four-year pro career, can't possibly pass up what appears to be easy money. "Hundred bucks," Freeney says, grabbing four striped balls and dropping them one by one into the nearest corner pocket.
He might as well have thrown in a $100 bill at the same time. With the four balls off the table James needs only a few shots to even the game, and soon the gold-toothed halfback has the 8 ball in his sights to close the deal. "That's the oldest sucker bet in the pool hustler's handbook," James says, laughing, as he finishes off his friend and road roommate. "When he takes off his balls, all it does is create more space for me to do my thing."
If only Freeney, 25, could so easily get more space on the green of an NFL field. Considered too short and too light by some talent evaluators before the 2002 NFL draft, the 6'1", 265-pound Syracuse product has emerged as the league's most feared pass rusher, and with that distinction comes the requisite attention from opposing linemen. As a suddenly formidable defense has carried the Colts to a 5-0 start, Freeney, the NFL's reigning sack champion, with 16 last year, has seen more than his share of triple teams. Yet in addition to freeing up his fellow defenders, the frighteningly fast Freeney remains a devastating force. He has five sacks this season--one off the NFL lead--including one in Sunday's 28-3 road victory over the SanFrancisco 49ers, which left Indianapolis as the league's sole remaining undefeated team.
In 2004 the Colts got a record-setting season from All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning, and still Indy got punked in the playoffs, for the second consecutive year, by the eventual Super Bowl--champion New England Patriots. But after an off-season infusion of defensive talent, notably former Philadelphia Eagles Pro Bowl tackle Corey Simon, and the emergence of young standouts such as hard-hitting free safety Bob Sanders and middle linebacker Gary Brackett, the Colts have high hopes for 2005. "They're much more physical than in the past," says Cleveland quarterback Trent Dilfer, whose Browns suffered a 13-6 defeat at Indianapolis last month. "If they stay healthy, watch out."
The Indianapolis defense, which ranked 29th in the league last year, held each of its first five opponents to 10 points or fewer--only the third team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to do so--while the offense took four weeks to approach its 2004 form. (Manning had just two touchdown passes through Week 3.) The Colts may finally have the overall balance they need to reach their first Super Bowl since the team arrived from Baltimore in 1984. "Ever since I've been here, people have gone crazy over our offense and said that the defense sucks," Freeney says. "Well, guess what? We're making strides. I'm not going to say we're there yet, but we're fast and physical and playing together, and we're getting better. The crazy thing is, now that the defense is finally balling, everyone's uptight because the offense hasn't been clicking. Peyton's not as happy as he usually is, and it's like there's a dark cloud in the locker room."
Freeney respects Manning and likes him as a person, but "he's a quarterback," Freeney says, enunciating the word with the same disdain that former president Bush reserved for liberal. "I mean, imagine going through life like that--having everything so easy, being so soft, wearing a different colored jersey in practice to symbolize you can't be touched. It pisses me off. And Peyton's a quarterback's son--he's been that way since birth!" In training camp nothing riles Freeney more than being told he can't go after Manning, perhaps the league's toughest quarterback to sack. "I'll come off the edge," Freeney says, "and a coach will scream, 'Don't touch the quarterback!' So I'll have to veer off, and it really burns me inside." Were Freeney to play for another team, he says, "I'd have a giant picture of Peyton painted on the ceiling above my bed."
Lest Manning take it personally, Freeney feels that way about all quarterbacks. He says he was "sick to [his] stomach" when he saw the Patriots' Tom Brady on the cover of GQ 's September issue. "He's a great guy, but he's a quarterback. You have to realize what it's like for defensive players," Freeney says. "We're all out there trying to get a chunk of change from Nike or Reebok, and then you find out that one of the best [defensive] players in the league, an All-Pro every year, is making way less on his [shoe-company] deal than some quarterback who hasn't even taken his team to the playoffs. It's like, you get peanuts and Kyle Boller is eating chocolate-covered almonds."
The son of Jamaican-born parents, Freeney was a goalkeeper on his high school soccer team in Bloomfield, Conn., until he switched sports before his sophomore season at the urging of the football coach, who loved his size and speed. After earning high school All-America honors, he went to Syracuse, where as a junior he had 4 1/2 sacks in a breathtaking game against fleet-footed Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick, and as a senior led the nation with 17 1/2. Timed at 4.38 seconds in the 40 in a workout for scouts before the 2002 draft, Freeney figured he was a surefire first-rounder before he began hearing the noise from draftniks about his size. "I was getting murdered," Freeney says. "After listening to Mel Kiper, I didn't know I'd made a play in college."
However, Colts president Bill Polian and his newly hired coach, defensive guru Tony Dungy, had a different opinion of Freeney and took him with the 11th pick. He quickly made his new bosses look good, finishing third in the NFL with 13 sacks as a rookie despite starting only eight games. Reversing years of "bigger is better" coaching groupthink, the relatively small but explosive Freeney was blowing past massive offensive tackles as if he were in a FasTrak toll lane. Freeney keeps his weight down by following a strict workout regimen and a diet meant to improve the body's immune response, reducing injuries and improving recovery time after physical exertion. Freeney avoids black pepper and various other additives--except on the Colts' off days, when he has been known to drive a half hour out of his way to score his favorite buffalo wings. Freeney is sometimes as light as 255 pounds on game day.
By now, Freeney, whose mother, Joy, was a Jamaican Olympic prospect in the 400-meter dash, has proved that speed kills against bigger opponents; indeed, he's smoked more fatties than Bob Marley. Freeney's career average of .865 sacks per game (45 sacks in 52) is the highest since sacks became an official statistic in 1982 (box, opposite). He's been told that one team prepared for him by having a defensive back line up for the scout team at right defensive end--two steps offside. "He is creating mad havoc," says Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair, whose team suffered a 31-10 defeat to the Colts on Oct. 2. "I watched film, and it seems like he's getting faster and faster. Sometimes you think there's something wrong with the projector."
Were Freeney relying on speed alone, he'd be hard enough to contain; throw in his expanding array of killer moves, including a 360-degree spin, and he becomes an opposing coach's biggest headache. "I've never seen a guy spin like him," marvels Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher. "It's almost like he can spin as fast as anyone else can go forward, and when he comes out of it, he knows exactly where he is." And like his idol, Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor, Freeney is adept at stripping the ball, whipping his arm in a windmill motion as he descends upon the quarterback. Already he has forced 19 fumbles in his career, including one last week against 49ers rookie quarterback Alex Smith (who also threw four interceptions). Freeney's effort, too, is exceptional. "The speed and moves help," Dilfer says, "but the engine is what makes him so good."
There's no more telling measure of Freeney's ability than his performances in the last two meetings against Baltimore Ravens All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden, generally considered the league's best offensive lineman. "Ogden was so hard to prepare for," Freeney says, "because on film nobody was beating him, ever. So I had to just go off what happened on the field." Last December, Freeney left the 6'9", 345-pound Ogden utterly flummoxed, sacking Ravens quarterback Boller twice and repeatedly hounding him into incompletions. The Colts won 20-10. When the teams met again in the 2005 season opener, Ogden got help blocking Freeney on most plays, from a tight end or a running back--or both. Freeney was still disruptive, pressuring Boller into throwing an interception and drawing Ogden into a pair of false-start penalties in Indy's 24-7 victory. "He's got a really good spin move," says Ogden, "and converts it into power."
Says Dungy of his pass rusher, "I compare him to Randy Moss in that even when he doesn't make a play, he has an impact on games because of the way teams adjust to his presence."
Because teams use backs and tight ends as extra blockers on Freeney, his linemates are being single-blocked--fellow end Robert Mathis, not Freeney, actually leads the team in sacks, with six--and the Colts' linebackers and defensive backs have fewer receivers to cover. While Manning, James and All-Pro wideout Marvin Harrison remain the team's marquee players, Freeney and his fellow defenders are fast gaining respect. Two years ago Indianapolis gave up 336 points, fifth-worst in the AFC; last year the total rose to 351. Now, having surrendered an NFL-low 29 points in five games, the Colts are on pace for 93, which would be the fewest points they've allowed in franchise history.
"They've certainly taken a lot of heat over the years, but right now they have a little swagger to them," Manning says of his teammates on defense. "I like that they're getting attention. It's about time."
You know what Freeney would say to that. Yeah, whatever--quarterback.
LAST SEASON the Colts had the league's highest scoring offense, averaging nearly 33 points a game, while the defense was middling. This year, at 5.8 points allowed per game through Week 5, the Indianapolis defense is the best in the league and has even surpassed the offense in performance. Here's how Tony Dungy's two units have compared, in points per game, since he became Indy coach in 2002.
SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU
More pro football coverage, including Michael Silver's Open Mike, at SI.com/football.
"Imagine going through life having everything so easy," says Freeney (right). "And Peyton's a quarterback's son--he's been that way since birth!"
Photograph by John Biever
A HANDFUL Undersized at 6'1", 265, Freeney uses speed and an array of confounding moves to beat the double and triple teams he commands.
BOB ROSATO (MANNING)
JOHN BIEVER (FREENEY, TOP)
ELSA/GETTY IMAGES (SACK)
CRUSHING Byron Leftwich and other AFC passers are used to Freeney's up-close-and-personal style.
SACK PACK Freeney's linemate Mathis is another reason the Colts' defense is the NFL's stingiest.