INDIANAPOLIS – The Texans had just survived their first brush with Peyton Manning's(notes) breathless hurry-up attack in Sunday's AFC South showdown with the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium, making a key fourth-down stop at their own 32-yard line, and now Manning's counterpart, Matt Schaub(notes), was hoping to make a statement.
The Texans quarterback did, and the statement was, "HELP!"
Schaub dropped back to pass, but before he could go through his reads he was smothered by Indy defensive end Dwight Freeney(notes) for a tone-setting sack. It took Houston nearly two quarters to achieve any offensive rhythm, and the Texans ultimately fell three points short against an Indy team whose two biggest stars have been paramount in achieving a perfect record midway through the 2009 season.
Just as Manning puts immediate stress on any defense, Freeney, the league's best pass rusher, is disrupting opposing offenses with ridiculous regularity. The four-time Pro Bowl selection has never been this good, as evidenced by his career-best streak of nine consecutive games with at least one sack, one shy of the NFL record shared by Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware(notes) and former Broncos linebacker Simon Fletcher.
After years of complaining about all the would-be sacks he was denied by rule-bending offensive linemen, quarterbacks prone to intentional grounding and the passers he'd chase into the clutches of opportunistic teammates, Freeney (9 ½ sacks, one forced fumble) is finally getting the unrelenting results befitting of his exceptional effort.
"I'm getting lucky this year, I guess," Freeney said as he left the locker room after Sunday's game. "I'll be honest with you – it's kind of amazing. I try not to think about it. I just want it to continue."
Even though Freeney's next opponent, Tom Brady(notes), is a crafty veteran who is difficult to sack, I think the streak will continue. In fact, I could see Freeney continuing his run for the rest of the season, a DiMaggio-esque feat that would make him a top contender for NFL defensive player of the year.
In the meantime, he'll have to settle for being on my seven-man midseason list of Defensive Players Who've Made the Biggest Impact. (The Mannings and Bradys of the world get enough attention, so I'm focusing on the dudes on the less-glorified side of the ball who've helped their teams excel.)
• Darren Sharper(notes): The man has the numbers – seven interceptions, tied for the league lead, including three returns for touchdowns; an NFL-high 19 passes defensed. More important, the veteran free-agent signee has been the most glaring reason for the Saints' defensive turnaround, transforming a team that was the essence of mediocrity for two seasons into an 8-0 juggernaut in the making. Ask anyone in the New Orleans locker room what Sharper has meant to the team, and you'll get a long and glowing answer.
• Jared Allen(notes): Trust me, the Packers' Aaron Rodgers(notes) isn't the only quarterback who sleeps with the light on because of this guy. Allen is less polished than Freeney, but his strength, intensity and playmaking instincts make him an equally formidable force. How were the Vikings able to lose Sharper and arguably get better on defense? One reason is that Allen (10½ sacks, tied for the NFL lead; one safety; three forced fumbles; two fumbles recovered; one TD), the man whose relentlessness sets the mood, won't tolerate anything less than maximum effort.
• Johnathan Joseph(notes) and Leon Hall(notes): Ascribing the Bengals' surprising success to the play of these two little-known cornerbacks would be an oversimplification, but their consistent and aggressive play has allowed Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer to get creative on defense without fear of getting burned repeatedly. My colleague Jason Cole did a much better and more thorough job of describing this on Sunday. Each corner has four interceptions, including one apiece in Sunday's 17-7 shutdown of the Ravens.
• Elvis Dumervil(notes): Like Freeney, his lack of size caused most NFL talent evaluators to underestimate his pass-rushing brilliance. In doing so, they whiffed as badly as some of the offensive tackles who've tried to block him on passing downs. Dumervil has been good from the start of his four-year career, but new Broncos defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's 3-4 scheme has unleashed him, and the converted outside linebacker (10½ sacks, tied for the league lead; two forced fumbles; one fumble recovery; two passes defensed) has been making big plays all season.
• Jerod Mayo(notes): The Patriots' second-year linebacker missed three games after suffering a knee injury in the season opener, and even after making a game-high 12 tackles against the Dolphins on Sunday, he wasn't yet ready to proclaim himself 100 percent healthy. The kid has nonetheless made a huge impact, however: Quietly, Bill Belichick transitioned from his staple 3-4 scheme to a hybrid one with a 4-3 emphasis over the offseason – never mind that he hasn't bothered to announce this publicly – because he realized that Mayo, a pure middle linebacker, is already New England's second-most important player. As Ray Lewis(notes) and Brian Urlacher(notes) complete the latter stages of their brilliant careers, Mayo and the Niners' Patrick Willis(notes) are the heirs to their legacies as the game's most feared monsters in the middle. If Mayo can stay healthy for the rest of '09, he'll have a chance to complement Brady the way Freeney does Manning, and make the Pats a championship contender.
As for my other list – the usual top-to-bottom rankings from an obsessively inquisitive perspective – let's start with a non-prolific defensive player who's just trying to do his part:
5. Pittsburgh Steelers: Is Mike Tomlin so good a coach that he was simultaneously able to do the right thing by sitting Ryan Clark(notes) and enjoy a career game from Clark's replacement, Tyrone Carter(notes)?
10. Philadelphia Eagles: Wouldn't it have been better if Andy Reid had saved a red flag for the final minutes of Sunday night's defeat to the Cowboys – and challenged his own decision to kick the field goal?
13. San Diego Chargers: When Shawne Merriman(notes) did that Lights Out dance at game's end Sunday at Giants Stadium, was it a sign that the switch has officially been flipped for the once dominant pass rusher?
14. Houston Texans: If I still worked at Sports Illustrated, how jealous would I have been of Tim Layden for writing that terrific piece on one of my favorite dudes, 17th-year defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina(notes)?
15. New York Giants: When Tom Coughlin told reporters of his decision to play it safe on third-and-goal from the 9-yard line late in Sunday's defeat to the Chargers, "You can second guess it all you want," did the Giants coach also add, "And feel free to use the restroom if the urge overtakes you"?
22. Jacksonville Jaguars: Yo, Jack Del Rio – what was 322-pound defensive lineman Atiyyah Ellison(notes) doing on the "hands" team for the first of Ryan Succop's(notes) two onside kicks in Sunday's fourth quarter against the Chiefs?
23. Buffalo Bills: If Michael Vick(notes) lands there next season, as Tony Dungy suggested Sunday night on NBC, is there any chance he'd petition the Bills – and the league – to allow him to wear No. 32?
24. Seattle Seahawks: After what we saw Sunday at Qwest Field – OK, most of us didn't actually see it – is it safe to say that Lofa Tatupu(notes) was right about his replacement, David Hawthorne(notes)?
25. Tennessee Titans: How gutsy was that Vince Young(notes) option call on fourth-and-inches – and how sweet was Chris Johnson's move on 49ers linebacker Parys Haralson(notes) before slipping in for the winning score?
29. St. Louis Rams: With a victory in their pockets and a game against the Saints on deck, how many players were tempted to extend their bye an extra week – and, if they did, would anyone outside of St. Louis notice?
30. Detroit Lions: As Calvin Johnson(notes) and Matthew Stafford(notes) attempted to hash out their differences in Seattle on Sunday, would the quarterback have been offended if the receiver had said, "Give me a high-five, like the one you just served up to the Seahawks"?
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: When Kellen Winslow(notes) said of Raheem Morris after Sunday's victory over the Packers, "We're not letting him go nowhere," did the tight end realize he was actually saying he and his teammates will ensure his coach will be going somewhere?