Monday, November 8, 2004
Updated: November 9, 12:07 PM ET
Freeney finishes with 3 tackles, 2 sacks
By Len Pasquarelli
INDIANAPOLIS -- Maybe it's true, as the old adage suggests, that the best revenge is living well.
Just don't try convincing Indianapolis Colts standout defensive end Dwight Freeney that playing well, especially in a one-on-one battle against an opponent who basically made his reputation against you in a matchup years ago, isn't so much sweeter.
In a Monday night game that featured about as much offensive weaponry, and only a touch of defensive play-making, as was expected from two of the NFL's highest-octane units, it was the dominance of Freeney against Minnesota Vikings left offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie that helped separate the teams in a 31-28 Colts victory.
No doubt most of the headlines will center, and justifiably so, around Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. The NFL's reigning co-most valuable player, and certainly a candidate to repeat that accomplishment, Manning threw four touchdown passes and also led the Indianapolis offense 55 yards late in the game to set up Mike Vanderjagt's winning 35-yard field goal with two seconds remaining in the bitterly contested showdown.
But if it was Vanderjagt's kick that determined the outcome, Freeney got an opportunity to settle an old score, and the three-year veteran succeeded in brilliant fashion.
"The fact that it was a Monday night game, yeah, that will get the adrenaline going a little bit," said Freeney, who finished with three tackles, two sacks and more than a handful of hurries, as he harassed Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper all night. "And the fact that it was (McKinnie) on the other side of the line, that meant something, too."
It is a coupling that goes back to the 2001 college season, when Freeney registered 17½ sacks in his senior year at Syracuse but was blanked by McKinnie, then the anchor of the University of Miami offensive line. The Miami propaganda machine, which conveniently overlooked that McKinnie had considerable double-team assistance in the game, used the performance by its giant tackle to hype him for postseason honors.
The contention that he was manhandled by McKinnie stuck in Freeney's craw for the better part of 2½ seasons.
Or, to be more precise, until Monday night.
"Did we remind him of it?" asked Colts defensive tackle Montae Reagor. "Uh, yeah, you might say that, I guess."
Truth be told, there was no need to needle Freeney, whose memory is elephantine. Ask the Colts' 2002 first-round draft pick about the 28 sacks he had collected in his 38 appearances prior to Monday night, and there is a pretty good chance he can detail every one of them -- who he beat, the move he employed to burst into the backfield. Certainly he will file away the two knockdowns of Culpepper here on Monday night and might even mentally frame them, given the blocker he abused on the plays.
His two sacks, the only times the sturdy Culpepper went down in 21 "dropbacks," really demonstrated the manner in which Freeney has made himself a complete pass rusher. Once simply an upfield "edge" rusher, whose game lacked versatility as he simply tried to beat every offensive tackle with his quickness, Freeney has added some nifty tricks to his repertoire now.
The first sack, which came in the second quarter, was a classic speed-rush, with Freeney roaring around McKinnie while the Minnesota tackle was still in his stance, dumping an unsuspecting Culpepper for a 7-yard loss. In the third quarter, Freeney broke out one of his new moves, spinning inside and then cutting through the clutter in the middle of the pocket to nab Culpepper for an 8-yard sack. Of his unofficial half-dozen pressures, three came on inside countermaneuvers.
In a rare subpar performance, McKinnie, who some now regard as the best left tackle in the NFC, was also flagged for a false-start penalty. In the second quarter, with Freeney dominating the action, the Vikings staff was forced to provide McKinnie some help, as Minnesota began to double-team and "chip" him.
Much of the double-team adjustment, though, was to little avail.
"One of the things I've learned is that you've got to get better every year, add some new twist, improve at some (facet) of the game," Freeney said. "I mean, those other guys are getting paid, too, you know? The tackles, they're getting bigger, getting quicker. If you don't keep up, you'll be in trouble. My thing tonight was to force the big man to have to keep moving his feet. Go outside a little. Go inside on him. Make him work. It's like going up against Goliath -- that guy is so big, but sometimes David wins a few, too."
Freeney, 24, isn't as small as dimensions listed on the roster make him appear. Although he is only 6-1, undersized by NFL defensive end standards, Freeney is thicker and more stout than his alleged weight of 268 pounds. He plays with natural leverage, high energy and, as manifested on Monday night, with a purpose.
And for a young player, Freeney is the rare student of the game, poring over videotape in an effort to gain an edge and frequently consulting with fellow defensive ends around the league. Among the big-time pass rushers also represented by his agent, Gary Wichard, are Jason Taylor of Miami, Baltimore's Terrell Suggs and New Orleans' Darren Howard. The group has formed an unofficial fraternity, updating its information on pass-blockers and sharing tricks of the trade.
Twenty minutes or so after exorcising a demon from his past, Freeney tried hard to share the credit for his clutch performance, but his teammates would have none of it. Playing way outside, sometimes in a "nine" technique, Freeney ran rings around McKinnie, and the Colts defenders were appreciative of his wire-to-wire effort.
"He wanted this game bad," Reagor said. "There was something personal at stake here for him and he went out and erased all that (bad) history."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .