SAN DIEGO – It may come as news to Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, but Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney has a new mantra, one forcibly crammed into his psyche during Indy's 23-17 overtime defeat to the Chargers in a first-round playoff game at Qualcomm Stadium last Saturday.
"Size doesn't matter," Freeney declared after watching Chargers halfback Darren Sproles, all 5-foot-6-inches and 181 pounds of him, rip up the Colts for 328 all-purpose yards, the third-highest total in NFL postseason history. "Sproles is a good player. He's small, but he's shifty and fast. He did a hell of a number on us."
The Colts were chasing after Sproles all night.
(Stan Liu/US Presswire)
Welcome to San Diego, where small is the new big and, at least for the time being, 43 is the new 21. With LaDainian Tomlinson (torn groin tendon) hobbled in the playoffs for the second consecutive year and former backup Michael Turner now a Falcons Pro Bowl performer, Sproles will likely be the guy charged with breaching the Steel Curtain when his team faces the second-seeded Steelers in an AFC divisional-round clash at Heinz Field on Sunday.
On paper, it looks like a brutal mismatch: The NFL's shortest player against its stingiest defense. On grass, it may not go down that way. Sproles' combination of speed, sharp-cutting, vision, strength and slipperiness confounded the Colts, as it did in San Diego's playoff upset in Indy a year ago. As Colts defensive coordinator Ron Meeks said Saturday night, "He kicked our ass all over the field."
Come Sunday, the men in black and gold may find that containing Sproles is like tackling oil.
"The first thing that stands out is his stature," says Tomlinson, who carried just five times against Indy before giving way to Sproles and is likely to sit out against the Steelers. "It's hard to see him. He's quick, he's fast and he's tough for a little guy, one of the toughest guys I've ever been around. We see it every day. The guy gets in the weight room and goes after it."
In fact Sproles, says quarterback Philip Rivers, "is, I think, the strongest guy on the team, pound for pound. He also might be the hardest working. So what he gets, he earns."
After Saturday's performance, which included 105 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns on 23 carries, 45 yards on five receptions and 178 yards on kickoff and punt returns, Sproles is likely to earn some serious scratch in free agency. The former Kansas State star was a fourth-round draft pick of the Chargers in 2005 – any guesses as to why a guy who finished fifth in the Heisman voting as a junior in 2003 lasted so long? – and is a dangerous return man who could thrive in the two-back-rotation concept that is increasingly common around the league.
His profile may rise, but whether he stays in San Diego or signs elsewhere, don't expect to see Sproles soliciting endorsement gigs for minus-size clothing lines and the like. Plagued by a speech impediment that causes him to stutter when nervous, Sproles is painfully shy around strangers and dreads interviews. He's as elusive with his answers, which typically consist of one-sentence statements that reveal as little as possible, as he is in the open field.
At a news conference at the Chargers' facility Monday, the sudden star did cop to an I-told-you-so mentality toward critics who doubt his credentials as an every-down back. "I feel I showed some people," he said. "Some people don't think I can do it still. That's the way it's always going to be I think. They want to see it again. I've got to keep doing it. That's all it is. As long as my line keeps blocking like that I can."
Sproles is more comfortable interacting with teammates who, naturally, goof on him about his height at every opportunity. Last summer, coach Norv Turner canceled a training-camp practice and surprised his players with a trip to Knott's Berry Farm Soak City in nearby Chula Vista. When they arrived at the water park, Chargers players kept telling Sproles, "You can't go down that slide. You aren't tall enough."
He also gets teased for his speed. Says special teams ace Kassim Osgood: "I tell him, 'You need to slow it down a little bit. You need to smooth it out. Take your time.' But the reality is, he's on fire. He's going 100 miles per hour, and the rest of the guys have got to be able to keep up."
Adds halfback Michael Bennett: "He's a tremendous player, man. What was the little guy from the cartoon? Speedy Gonzales? That's him."
Right now, the dude Bennett likens to a sombrero-wearing, animated mouse is, without question, The Man. If the Steelers can't put a hat on him quickly enough on Sunday – if Sproles becomes the Mouse that Shamed Pittsburgh – he'll never buy a drink in San Diego again.
Chances are he'll still get carded, though.
Here's our inquisitive scorecard of the remaining teams, only four of which will be standing tall at this time next week:
6. Philadelphia Eagles: As Asante Samuel snagged that interception at the Metrodome last Sunday and ran it back 44 yards for a touchdown, how many Patriots fans were screaming, "Where the hell was that in the Super Bowl?"