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.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]