A reporter yesterday told Dwight Freeney it was hard to label him as an outsider linebacker after ten years of him playing defensive end for the Indianapolis Colts. Freeney responded, somewhat jokingly:
"You don't have to write it. Just say defensive end."
He's not far from the truth there.
The transition for both Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis from (essentially) Wide-9 defensive ends in a base Tampa-2 scheme to outside linebackers in a base 3-4 scheme is one of the major story-lines for the Colts as they get ready for the 2012 regular season opener against the Bears. It's a change that Freeney himself seems to not have fully embraced, joking with reporters yesterday that he still doesn't think he's a real outside linebacker.
What he has embraced are the changes Chuck Pagano and Greg Manusky have installed in the Colts "new era" defense, a defense that will look just as foreign to fans as the Colts offense will look with Andrew Luck at quarterback, not Peyton Manning.
Freeney on the defensive changes:
"It's actually kind of fun, and, actually, it could kind of help me."
Freeney is the all-time Colts franchise leader in sacks with 102.5. He's also forced 42 fumbles. If he plays for three more years and earns roughly 9 sacks a season, he'll pass Lawrence Taylor on the All-Time sacks list. That will give Freeney a Hall of Fame-type resume.
However, last year was the first time since 2007, the year Freeney's season was cut short due to a foot injury, that the game-wrecking pass rusher did not earn 10 or more sacks. The Colts defense was exposed as soft, and teams threw and ran the ball on them, sans impunity. Something had to change.
When Steve Spagnuolo turned out Indy's offer to be their new defensive coordinator back in January, out went Jim Caldwell as head coach and the Tampa-2 defense along with him. In came Pagano and his hybrid 3-4 defense which will, in theory, showcase Freeney as a stand-up outside linebacker for roughly 25% of his snaps.
However, this means that, for 75% of his snaps, Freeney is essentially doing the same thing he's done for 10 years: Rush the quarterback from a three-point stance (aka, his hand on the ground, not standing up).
"I'm basically doing the same thing I've been doing, just with more people blitzing."
Freeney also admitted yesterday that the previous defensive coaching staff had packages in place calling for him to rush from a stand-up position, but those packages were never utilized in a game.
What is truly unique about the shift in defense isn't so much whether Freeney is standing up or not. It's where he is rushing from.
For a decade, Freeney was a fixture at right defense end, taking on left tackles every Sunday (and usually eating them alive). Canton-caliber players like Jonathan Ogden and Walter Jones probably still wake up today from nightmares featuring Freeney spinning and bull-rushing his way past and through them on the way to the quarterback.
Now, the seven-time Pro Bowler won't just be rushing from the right side. Freeney could come from the left. The middle. The B Gap. Or, he could drop into a zone and really confuse the hell out of the quarterback and his offensive linemen.
"It creates some hesitation for the offensive tackle, too. So, it's not always just about me. You see, you have more things to worry about. There could be a guy blitzing in that B Gap. So, he may not kick out as fast. You understand? So, there's certain things that he needs to worry about, not just [is Freeney] getting off the ball the same way."
Confusing the offense and making them hesitate is the goal of Pagano's defense. Hesitation creates mistakes, and few players have exploited the mistakes of left tackles than Freeney.
The popular thought is that Freeney's sack partner, Robert Mathis, will have an easier transition to OLB. He's better suited for the job physically, and he's done it before. Tony Dungy used to use Mathis as a blitzing linebacker back in 2003 and 2004 in an attempt to get the Alabama A&M alum more snaps on defense.
Thus, it's Freeney who will be scrutinized more as the preseason unfolds and fans see how well he plays as an outsider linebacker, which, at the end of the day, is a position he really isn't playing. Freeney is still a defensive end. Just in disguise.