INDIANAPOLIS – After 60 minutes of football when the clock ticked to zero and the Colts fell just shy of victory, 45 players were able to exit the field knowing there was nothing to hang a head about in terms of effort.
That was particularly the case for the Colts defense that battled a talented Pittsburgh offense for 34 of the game's 60 minutes.
It was especially true for one Colts defender, defensive end Dwight Freeney. Freeney, who has been voted to six Pro Bowls, turned in another outstanding effort. He totaled four tackles, three quarterback hits, two sacks and a forced fumble. His first forced fumble came just after his bookend teammate Robert Mathis had turned the same trick seconds earlier in the second quarter against Pittsburgh.
With Indianapolis trailing, 10-3, Freeney sacked Ben Roethlisberger at the Indianapolis 48-yard line, separating the talented quarterback from the ball. Freeney's teammate Jamaal Anderson scooped up the fumble and rumbled 47 yards as Indianapolis tied the contest in the final two minutes of the half. An additional takeaway spurred Indianapolis to a 13-10 lead that would hold until the fourth quarter, when Freeney came to the fore again.
The Indianapolis defense spent 10:05 on the field in the third quarter without surrendering any points. Pittsburgh eventually tied the contest, 13-13, early in the fourth quarter and appeared ready to move ahead. It was Freeney who delayed that when he sacked Roethlisberger on third-down from the Colts' 36, forcing a punt.
Pittsburgh's defense tallied with six minutes to go for a 20-13 lead. The Colts would tie it on an ensuing drive, then the Steelers marched for a game-winning 38-yard field goal in the final seconds.
The defensive effort in the loss was stellar, as measured afterwards by Colts Vice Chairman Bill Polian.
"I don't know that the front seven has played better defense in quite some time," said Polian. "For those who say we can't run and stop the run, watch this tape. On a night where we were up against a great defense, I don't know who had a better defense tonight. We emptied the bucket; that's why we have to make sure they (players) have to keep their heads up. They need to realize the post mortems don't mean anything. If we play the way we played tonight, we'll win a lot of games."
The game marked Freeney's 23rd career multiple-sack game. He now has 97 for his career. Linebacker Pat Angerer, who had 20 stops against Pittsburgh, sized up Freeney's evening.
"He played fantastic. He bailed us out on that one and got them out of field goal range," said Angerer. "That was big. Our D-line was getting pressure on the quarterback. Our secondary was covering and our guys were playing hard. You can't fault the effort. When guys are running hard and guys are playing fast, you're going to get those big plays. We just want to win. There are no moral victories."
Cornerback Jerraud Powers and his teammates in the secondary benefit from the pressure caused by Freeney, and he noted how their play helped Indianapolis erase a deficit and stay in position to win all evening.
"That's Dwight. That's what he does," said Powers. "He's going to go out there and raise havoc for the (opposing) offensive line, him and Robert (Mathis). I thought our d-line did a tremendous job. I want to say we held them to two or three yards per rush, whatever it was. I think our whole front four did a great job. When you have guys like Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis on the edge, they're going to cause havoc night in and night out.
"Dwight's a smart football player. He sort of has that feeling when it's time to make a play, and it happens more times than not. He does a tremendous job whenever he gets a sack. He causes havoc, and Robert's (Mathis) the same way. It's a testament to their hard work to get those sack-fumbles. I thought overall our whole front four did a great job."
Freeney was spent after the performance and was in no mood to analyze his efforts. His focus was on the team and how it goes from here.
"I think we did some good things. Obviously, it wasn't enough," said Freeney. "We really don't care about second-place prizes or playing a good half or a good three quarters. We didn't play good enough to win. I'm sure there are bright spots. I've always said it's never as bad as you think it is or as good as you think it is. We will go out and watch the film and keep moving.
"The season's not over. It's very unfortunate the 0-3 start, very unfortunate. Who wants to be in this situation? Nobody. We'll going to keep grinding. We'll get everybody's support to get behind us to get this turned around."
Indianapolis limited Pittsburgh to 67 yards on 28 attempts, a 2.4 average. Freeney acknowledged stopping the run was a key and though the team made plays, Freeney wished for more.
"We had a couple of game plans, and that (stopping the run) was one of them," he said. "You have to be able to stop the run and get teams into a one-dimensional game. We were able to do that. They just made a few more plays at the end than we were able to stop."
The difficult start for the team is something the players and coaches will work on, and all parties know more than three-quarters of the season still lies ahead. Polian held a regard for the defensive effort, and he knows it was some of the best ball played by the unit in a long time.
"That was championship defense that we played tonight, especially in the terribly adverse conditions with the punt return and the situation where the sack-fumble that became a touchdown," said Polian. "The result was not what we wanted, but I don't know that we've played as hard in a long, long time as we played tonight. It was Colts football."