Thursday, November 15, 2007
Resilient Colts can overcome Freeney's absence
By Jeffri Chadiha ESPN.com
The injured left foot that ended Dwight Freeney's season might be enough to make some people write off the Indianapolis Colts. Please don't be foolish enough to make that mistake.
It's a devastating blow to lose a Pro Bowl defensive end, no question. But to believe Freeney's loss makes the Colts incapable of defending their Super Bowl championship is a silly notion at best.
If there is one thing we now know about the Colts, it's that they're a much tougher bunch than when coach Tony Dungy arrived in 2002. They can deal without Freeney's setback because they've been coping with countless injuries for the past few weeks, including the absence of starters such as wide receiver Marvin Harrison, linebacker Rob Morris and rookie left tackle Tony Ugoh. Heck, quarterback Peyton Manning was throwing passes to somebody named Craphonso Thorpe in the Week 10 loss to San Diego. That says all you need to know about the Colts' health issues these days.
What's become quite apparent is that Indianapolis doesn't wither when faced with painful setbacks. The Colts also have learned how to prosper without the big numbers that Freeney once gave them. Just check the stats. The same man who signed a six-year, $72 million contract in July -- a deal that included a $30 million signing bonus, making him the highest-paid defender in NFL history -- had only nine sacks in his last 25 games. A case can easily be made that Freeney was far from being the dominant force he was a couple of years ago.
Now in fairness to Freeney, he has obviously seen plenty of exotic blocking schemes during his career, with more coming in the past few years. But the main point here is that the Colts' defensive success doesn't rest primarily on his shoulders anymore. Defensive end Robert Mathis has become a talented pass-rusher over the past few years. The linebacking corps -- a unit that is as banged up as any on the Colts' roster -- hasn't been impaired by the free-agent departure of Cato June. And the secondary is now the strength of this defense, with strong safety Bob Sanders the most valuable Colts defender these days.
This is what you also need to realize about Indianapolis: Its defense isn't just defined by sacks anymore. These Colts are more concerned with handling their individual roles and doing whatever is necessary to stop the run first. That subtle change in philosophy lessened the impact Freeney consistently had and it also helped Indianapolis grow into a top defensive team. Through nine games, the Colts rank third in total defense and sixth in points allowed.
The reality is that Indianapolis will manage without Freeney in the same manner that New England managed without Pro Bowl defensive tackle Richard Seymour earlier this season. The Colts will ask other players to compensate for that void. They'll discover that more teammates will raise their level of play to account for Freeney's absence. Simply put, they'll do what all championship-caliber teams usually do in times of duress: They'll find a way to overcome.
Now I'm not expecting recently signed defensive end Simeon Rice to reinvent himself in Indianapolis. He lost his job in Tampa for a reason and the Denver Broncos recently dumped him because he has little left to offer aside from the wisdom he can pass along to younger players after 12 seasons in the league. He is not going to make people forget about Freeney over the next couple of months.
That job falls on Dungy and the Colts' leaders. They now have to show the same kind of resiliency they displayed in recent losses to New England and San Diego. Cynics may say those defeats revealed that Indianapolis isn't what it used to be, especially with so many injured players, but there was something else that should've been noticed. These Colts don't whimper when times get hard. If anything, they keep grinding, and there's something to be said for such grit coming from a team that couldn't shed the "soft" label a few years back.
That type of character will serve the Colts well in the weeks to come. After all, they learned a valuable lesson last season, when they discovered that Manning didn't have to carry them to a championship. This season they can realize that Dwight Freeney doesn't have to be a dominant force for them to remain contenders. All they need is the same attitude and belief that has gotten them this far. When it comes down to it, it's those two qualities that mean more to Indianapolis than anything else these days.
Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.