Freeney capitalizes on quick steps
It's a lightning-quick second step that has already made Colts DE Dwight Freeney one of the league's premier pass rushers.
For years, when the topic has turned to the desire for quickness at the defensive end position, league scouts have spoken about the significance of a prospect's first step. That barometer isn't apt to change any time soon, but -- given the recent success of Indianapolis defensive right end Dwight Freeney -- the assessment process might be revisited.
The league's leading rookie sacker in 2002, and currently on a pass-rush rage with six sacks in his last three outings, Freeney is a blur. Just ask overmatched Miami Dolphins left offensive tackle Wade Smith, transformed into a dreidel in cleats last week, as Freeney beat him for three sacks and also forced an intentional grounding penalty on one of his many forays into the backfield.
No doubt, Smith will attest, Freeney has an incredible first step. But it's actually a more explosive second step, Freeney told ESPN.com this week, that is critical to his status as one of the NFL's premier "edge" rushers.
Freeney didn't always pay such unwavering attention to first and second steps, to the technical minutiae players must naturally master to set themselves apart from their peers, and to the nuances not even some coaches understand. But under the tutelage of strength and conditioning coach William Hicks of Syracuse, who has prepared dozens of players for the draft and whose star pupils also include current St. Louis wide receiver Torry Holt (during a previous stint at North Carolina State), Freeney became a believer in doing the little things well.
And those little things included a lightning-quick second step, developing deceptive strength, learning the techniques that allowed him to overcome his lack of size. Hicks pointed out earlier this week that Freeney isn't necessarily a little man, but that a lack of height worried some NFL teams, then quickly emphasized that the defensive end has tremendous strength.
In working with Freeney, the strength coach concentrated on pure power, translated at base levels into violence. He developed Freeney's core strength -- the power exerted by a player's trunk, from his navel to the top of his knees -- and his ability to "bend" toward the pocket and the quarterback. Widely regarded as a one-dimensional speed-rusher, Freeney has knocked offensive linemen back on their heels with a bull-rush move that belies his rather minute stature, and he continues to be able to squeeze through blockers because of his strength.
"We wanted every move to be a violent move," Hicks explained. "I mean, power, just by definition, has nothing to do with size. The formula is weight, times distance, divided by time. So it's more about creating momentum than it is about size. The hits that hurt are by the safeties, linebackers, people like that. Offensive linemen, for instance, do not create great power, because they aren't traveling very far. Now, Dwight, he has power. And he has that great second step."
Both those qualities are reflected in the production of Freeney, who was clocked at a mind-boggling 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash before the draft, and who has changed the minds of a lot of skeptics who wondered how the Colts could select him with the 11th overall choice in the 2002 lottery. Freeney has 20 sacks and 13 forced fumbles in just 1½ seasons, and the connection between those two figures is hardly coincidence, since Hicks taught the defensive end that going for the football naturally carries him to the passer.
High-energy Colts defensive line coach John Teerlinck, one of the best pass-rush teachers in the game, has certainly reinforced the killer instinct Freeney possesses. Of course, it certainly doesn't hurt, either, that Freeney combines natural athleticism with work ethic.
"A lot of people," Hicks said, "are freaks of nature. Dwight Freeney is pretty much a freak of training. He takes the stuff you tell him, assimilates it, then applies it."
Left offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker will have to enjoy a solid performance if the Bucs are to gain revenge over the Carolina Panthers for a Sept. 14 overtime defeat. Panthers right defensive end Michael Rucker is operating at less than 100 percent because of an ankle injury, but he remains the NFL's top sacker (10), and is a viable midseason candidate for defensive player of the year honors. Rucker is an excellent two-way defender, since he also plays the run tough, and has developed an impressive array of pass-rush moves. He didn't register any sacks in the earlier meeting, but has been superb ever since.
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Stat of the Week
With the Tampa Bay Bucs at 4-4 and the Oakland Raiders sporting a 2-6 mark, neither team would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. If, indeed, neither franchise qualifies for postseason play, they will join a rather dubious group. There have been 19 teams that appeared in the Super Bowl and then failed to reach the playoffs in the season following their championship game berth. But only three times have both Super Bowl combatants not gone to the playoffs in the ensuing season. Two of those instances have occurred the past five years. Washington and Denver didn't advance to postseason in 1988, after playing in Super Bowl XXII, but there was just a 10-team playoff pool then. Under the 12-team pool, Denver and Atlanta struck out in 1999 after battling in Super Bowl XXXIII and New England and St. Louis didn't go to the playoffs in 2002 after appearing in Super Bowl XXXVI.
Stat of the Weak
The Buffalo Bills, who wanted to create more takeaways in 2003, have now gone an amazing 35 consecutive games without an interception by a safety. The last pickoff by a Bills safety came in a 13-10 victory at Jacksonville on Oct. 18, 2001, when Travares Tillman pilfered a Mark Brunell pass. The four players who have started at safety for the Bills since 2002 all have long interception droughts. Pierson Prioleau has gone 37 games without a pick, Lawyer Milloy is at 26 games, and Izell Reese and Coy Wire have each played 24 straight contests without an interception.
The Last Word
"(To) tell the truth, my (lack of height) actually helps, because I've got a lower center of gravity than most of the guys I line up across from," Freeney said. "And I feel like, if I get up under your pads, I'm going to whip you. Yeah, I know I'm not the textbook pass-rush guy everyone has drawn up on the computer. But I think I've broken the mold a little bit and forced (scouts) to rethink some things."
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Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.