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September 29, 2013

Colts GameDay: Freeman rushing to next level

INDIANAPOLIS — Jerrell Freeman considered the question for a moment, then responded with two of his own.

“A lot?” the Indianapolis Colts inside linebacker asked. “Is three a lot?”

Early season sack totals, it appears, are relative.

For Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston — the league leader with 7.5 quarterback takedowns — three sacks might not be much. But Freeman’s total — boosted by a pair of sacks against San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick last week — has been bettered by just eight other players through the first three games of the year.

And, in the process, Freeman himself has become the answer to one of the offseason’s most important questions: Aside from outside linebacker Robert Mathis — the team-leader with 4.5 sacks — where would the Colts’ pass rush come from?

Even if Freeman is more than willing to spread the credit around.

“It’s just making the most of an opportunity,” the second-year standout said. “Guys up front, my other linebackers blitzing in and doing their thing. They’re doing all that work, the least I can do is make a play when I get the opportunity. It’s just the opportunity presented itself, and I’m making a play.”

Freeman knows a thing or two about opportunity.

He went undrafted out of Mary Hardin-Baylor in 2008, was cut by the Tennessee Titans at the end of training camp that summer and then spent three seasons toiling in the Canadian Football League.

In January 2012, Freeman became the first player signed in Indianapolis by new general manager Ryan Grigson. He moved into the starting lineup after Pat Angerer was sidelined with a foot injury in the first preseason game, and he scored the Colts’ first touchdown of the Chuck Pagano era with an interception return against the Chicago Bears.

Freeman finished his long-delayed rookie season with a franchise-record 145 tackles, and he leads the team again with 26 stops through three games this year despite a slow start. Injuries limited him during the preseason, and it took a game or two for him to get his feet underneath him.

But the whirling dervish who added a team-high eight tackles to his two sacks against the 49ers last week had an awfully familiar look.

“He’s playing at a high level right now, which we like,” Indianapolis defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. “Continue to just try to make plays. That’s what the kid does. He flies around the ball, knows football. He understands it. Now just getting around the guys and playing together, good things happen for him.”

Historic things, actually.

Freeman became just the fourth undrafted Colt ever to record two sacks in a game — joining Eric Foster (2009), Tony Siragusa (1994) and Scott Virkus (1985). His five career sacks rank sixth all-time on the team’s undrafted players list, and he can move up to third with two more sacks. And his three forced fumbles — two of which have come on sacks this year — are tied for third among undrafted players. Only Siragusa (5) and Gary Brackett (4) have more.

Both of Freeman’s forced fumbles this year have led to scores. He knocked the ball free from Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill to set up a field goal on the first drive of the third quarter two weeks ago, and his strip of Kaepernick at the Niners’ 8-yard line set up Indianapolis’ final score in a 27-7 victory last Sunday.

“We just try to get turnovers, try to make a difference out there,” Freeman said. “That’s what we preach. Last year, we wanted to do more with the turnover battle, and I think we’re at plus-4 now. We still got to try to get those turnovers. It’s a big thing. Get old Andy (quarterback Andrew Luck) the ball over there, and I think we’ll be pretty good.”

Freeman’s step to the next level as a pass rusher has helped take some of the pressure off first-round draft pick Bjoern Werner.

The rookie is transitioning to outside linebacker after playing defensive end at Florida State and has been improving each week. But he’s not ready to make the kind of impact on Sundays that Freeman has had thus far.

Quarterbacks, as a rule, are most rattled by pressure up the middle. And Freeman’s presence gives opponents — such as Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert today — something else to think about, diverting attention from Mathis on the edge.

But the inside linebacker is far from a one-trick pony.

“He’s a good athlete,” Pagano said. “He studies the game, he works hard, he can run. He’s got intangibles. The guy’s got instincts. Again, he knows probably what’s coming before it comes. He’s effective both in coverage, he’s effective in the run game and when we do blitz he finds a way to get to the quarterback. So he’s got a knack for that.”

 

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