Indianapolis defensive end Dwight Freeney has quieted critics with 44 sacks in his young career.

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – When Dwight Freeney was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts, critics contended he was too small to beat the NFL’s big offensive linemen or be an every down player.

Wrong.

Four years later, Freeney has not only emerged as the leader of the Colts’ fearsome pass rush, he has evolved into the league’s most dangerous sack artist.

“Sometimes, I’ll dare you to stop me,” Freeney said.

Daring Freeney is like tempting fate.

Block him one-on-one and Freeney can win those battles with his speed.

Double-team him, and Freeney is likely to spin away or use his powerful bull rush technique, as Jacksonville and Cleveland discovered the last two weeks.

Freeney has become such a dominant force that teams have even resorted to rarely used triple teams to frustrate him. Seemingly nothing works against the 6-foot-1, 268-pound pass-rushing giant.

“I might have fallen into one by accident or something before,” Freeney said. “But there were two or three occasions (against Cleveland) when I saw a tight end, tackle and running back all coming to my side on the play. That’s crazy. I was laughing, they were laughing, everybody was laughing.”

Freeney grudgingly accepts those tactics as a compliment – as long as he wins the battles.

He had three sacks and forced one fumble last week against Cleveland and barely missed wrapping up Trent Dilfer a few other times.

A week earlier, he got Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich once and spent most of the day in Leftwich’s face. The hardest shot may have been on the Jags’ final drive when he hit Leftwich in the chest just as the ball was released.

With four sacks in three games, Freeney ranks second in the NFL and has established himself as the early front-runner for defensive player of the year.

“He’s somewhat like a Randy Moss in that everyone has to account for him,” coach Tony Dungy said. “When you have to change your protection to account for one guy, it helps your whole defense.”

The Colts (3-0) have taken advantage of Freeney’s presence.

They’re now moving Freeney around on the line, letting him stunt inside and speed rush outside to create more mismatches. And when Freeney isn’t yanking down quarterbacks, his teammates are.

Defensive tackle Larry Tripplett, who had one sack in his first three years, had two against Baltimore.

Tackle Montae Reagor, who had a career-high five sacks last year, already has three this season. End Robert Mathis, the other part of the bookend pass rushers, has three sacks this year after getting 10 1/2 in 2004.

It’s a nightmare scenario for quarterbacks.

“Freeney gets better and better every year, and it seems like he’s getting faster and faster,” Tennessee’s Steve McNair said. “Sometimes you think there’s something wrong with the projector when you see how quick he is.”

Opponents have had few answers so far.

The Colts (3-0) have allowed 16 points, only one touchdown, rank among the league leaders in sacks (13) for the second straight year and still have not allowed a 100-yard rusher.

Freeney’s pass-rush skills have been a perfect fit in the defense.

After setting a franchise record with 13 sacks his rookie season despite starting only eight games, he fought through the double teams to get 11 sacks and earn his first Pro Bowl selection in 2003. Last year, Freeney finished with 16 sacks and became the first Colt to win the sacks title.

His 40 sacks in his first three seasons were third all-time behind only Reggie White (52) and Derrick Thomas (43 ).

But this year, Freeney has taken his game to a new level.

He’s confounding opponents with more elusiveness and more power moves, and acknowledges he’s playing with fresher legs after sitting out training camp because of shoulder surgery.

Two-time MVP Peyton Manning compared Freeney this week to Bruce Smith, the NFL’s all-time sacks leader, while other teammates see the 25-year-old sackmaster still making improvements.

“He’s extremely quick off the ball,” said Corey Simon, a former Pro Bowl defensive tackle. “And he’s a very young guy. He’s still learning and that’s the scary part of it.”

Forget the critics. All Freeney wants to do is make a difference on the defense.

“What I do on the field hopefully speaks for itself,” he said. “I’m out there with blinders on.”

AP-ES-09-29-05 1641EDT


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