After Pat Angerer went down during the preseason with a fractured bone in his foot, the Colts’ community let out a collective groan. Angerer had a very nice sophomore season in 2011, one of the few bright spots on the team, and most Colts fans were excited to see him get another season under his belt in 2011.
The Colts linebacker group was already thin with a season-ending ACL tear for linebacker A.J. Edds, and weren’t helped by Scott Lutrus season ending injury during week one of the preseason either.
However, the Colts have not looked to be weak at the inside linebacker spot thus far, in fact, the combination of Kavell Conner and ex-CFLer Jerrell Freeman has looked very effective so far in this short season.
Freeman has been a player that has been exciting us since the preseason, and he’s exceeded expectations in place of Pat Angerer. After his 13 tackle and strip-sack performance against the Vikings, some even questioned whether Angerer’s starting spot was in danger. While I don’t agree with that, it’s clear that Freeman’s performance so far has been both unexpected and rejuvenating for a defense who’s inside linebackers were questioned throughout the offseason, wondering if they could make the transition.
But, as good as Freeman has been, Kavell Conner has been even better. Conner’s been active in the run game, consistently plugging holes and meeting running backs at or behind the line of scrimmage. Conner is the more dynamic player, more prone to big hits with his physical style of play.
Yet, Freeman has been the one directly causing both of the Colts defensive turnovers so far this year, intercepting Jay Cutler (and returning it for a TD) last week and forcing Christian Ponder to cough up the ball on a sack this week.
The two players are very different, which is exactly why the defense works with the two of them. Conner, as I said before, is more dynamic. He’s very instinctual, and once he thinks he knows where the play is going, he immediately shoots off to try and make the stop at the line of scrimmage. His tackles often come at full speed, as his quickness allows him to beat blockers to the hole and get a clean hit on the running back.
Freeman, on the other hand, is more patient, and tends to stick to his gap. This means that a lot of times he allows himself to get blocked, but he’s very good at shedding the block and making the tackle on the running back. The announcers parroted the fact that Adrian Peterson’s longest run on Sunday was a six-yard run (although he did have a 9-yarder early in the game), and a big part of that was Freeman. Because he stuck to his gap, and because he was able to make tackles off of a blocker, he saved runs from getting into the second level.
As a result, Conner’s tackles tend to come closer to the line of scrimmage, while Freeman’s more often come farther from the line of scrimmage. It may sound like an indictment of Freeman, but it’s not at all. On the contrary, the Colts need the difference between them. If both ‘backers took chances like Conner, they would be susceptible to far more long running plays. With Freeman being patient, he helps keep the runs to a salvageable gain.
Because of the two differences, Conner has a higher percentage of tackles that are categorized as defensive “stops” a play that constitutes an offensive failure. In fact, Conner’s play this season has put given him the sixth-best run stop percentage in the league for inside linebackers. But, Freeman’s no slouch either, sitting at 13th in the league. Between the two, they have 11 stops, tied with Pittsburgh for most stops for an inside linebacker duo.
Freeman is also more versatile than Conner, while Freeman did allow the game-tying touchdown to Kyle Rudolph on Sunday, he’s a capable linebacker in coverage, leading to him playing the fourth most snaps in the league at inside linebacker. Only D’Qwell Jackson, Paul Posluszny, and Ray Lewis have played more snaps as an inside linebacker through two weeks. When the Colts want to go to a coverage lineup, Freeman and Moise Fokou are generally the coverage linebackers.
The final reason why Freeman and Conner work so well at inside linebacker is their ability to get to the quarterback. Part of this is due to defensive playcalling, part due to Freeman and Conner’s production thus far.
So far this season, Conner and Freeman have been by far the most effective ILB duo at rushing the quarterback, with three hurries, one hit, and two sacks (including a fumble) on just 19 pass rushing snaps between the two of them. The first week, the two were good, but in week two Conner was second in pass rushing productivity and Freeman fifth. Overall this season (short as it may be), Conner has been the most effective inside linebacker in the league at pass rushing, and Conner tied for sixth. (All pass rushing stats brought to us by Pro Football Focus)
Overall, the linebacker group can only get better with Pat Angerer coming back after the bye. But, until then, let’s just say they’re in good hands.