"Down Goes Freeney!"
Chad Clifton vs. Dwight Freeney
Green Bay Packers 34 at Indianapolis Colts 14
If you're not a Packers fan and you're aware of Green Bay left tackle Chad Clifton, it's probably from one event: the blindside hit put on him by Warren Sapp in a Buccaneers-Packers game in November of 2002. Clifton was lost for the season with a pelvic injury, while Sapp and then-Packers coach Mike Sherman famously jawed at one another after the game, with Sherman calling Sapp a "chicken(bleep)" and Sapp exhorting Sherman to "put on a jersey." Perhaps you've also heard of Clifton's success against 2007 sack champion Jared Allen, no matter whether Allen lined up for the Chiefs then or the Vikings now. The nine-year veteran made the Pro Bowl for the first time after the 2007 season, and he's become one of the more highly-regarded tackles in the game.
How good is Clifton? One of the best tests for any left tackle is the elite speed rusher, so Clifton's matchup against Dwight Freeney of the Colts seemed optimal for Cover-3 focus.
In November of 2007, the Colts were forced to place Freeney on injured reserve with a foot injury suffered during one of his patented spin moves. Freeney had to have Lisfranc surgery, though he recovered in time for the 2008 season. Through the Colts' first four games of this year, Freeney had three sacks and two forced fumbles, looking very much like the player who averaged 12.5 sacks and 5.5 forced fumbles in his first four seasons. Freeney's productivity tailed off a bit when he suffered a leg injury in Week 5 against the Texans, though he certainly looked fast enough against Green Bay.
Since Freeney is known for getting washed out easily enough on run plays, it made sense to focus on the one-on-ones in passing situations only. What surprised me was how often Clifton took the challenge without any blocking help, and how successful he was.
Green Bay's first pass play came with 1:55 gone in the first quarter, with the Packers at their own 38 on third-and-6. At the snap, Freeney tried a spin move inside, but bounced off Clifton, who had perfect position, and got nowhere. Aaron Rodgers completed an 11-yard pass to tight end Donald Lee for a first down.
Three plays later, Green Bay had another third-and-long from the Colts' 35. Freeney shot off left end like a missile, but the Packers were ready for him. Not only were they lined up in shotgun with an offset-I and running back Brandon Jackson in the backfield, but Lee motioned right to left presnap. As Rodgers took the ball, Lee stayed home in the left slot to chip before going out on a short cross. Past Lee, Jackson chipped Freeney as well. Freeney got past Jackson only to deal with Clifton and his excellent hand technique. As Freeney spun a back into Clifton just a bit early, he was taken to the ground by contact with guard Daryn Colledge. Rodgers stepped up in the lane and threw an incomplete pass to Lee. A holding call on cornerback Tim Jennings gave Green Bay a first down at the Indianapolis 30.
Four straight running plays later, the Packers went shotgun, five wide, trips right, empty backfield, and the Colts responded with a twist on the right side of the line. Tackle Keyunta Dawson was doubled inside by Clifton and Colledge, while Freeney had to go all the way around the scrum to try and get to Rodgers before he got off a pass eight yards downfield to Jordy Nelson. Of course, with Freeney's speed, he still almost got there and nearly deflected Rodgers' pass. His quickness, especially in making the turn around right tackle, was something to behold. I don't know if there's another defensive end with Freeney's sheer motor in a situation like that.
The next play featured another empty backfield for the Packers, and the Colts went to a three-man front. Freeney got caught up with the double-team of Clifton and Colledge, and Jennings atoned for the holding call by breaking up a Rodgers pass to Ruvell Martin. The Packers had to kick a field goal from the Indianapolis 13. Coverage over pressure was the goal here with the Colts only bringing three, but you got to see the respect Freeney has earned in this league with that double-team.
The Packers started their next drive at their own 20 with 4:06 left in the first quarter. Another quick pass, this time to Greg Jennings, and Rodgers was confident enough in Clifton's ability to stand in the pocket to the left side as Clifton fanned Freeney out of the play, using Freeney's own speed against him.
Ryan Grant headed up the middle for seven yards in the next play. Then the Packers motioned into an inverted wishbone on second-and-3 from their own 41, but Clifton didn't need any help. Once again, he took Freeney out of the play. Tim Jennings got flagged for pass interference on Greg Jennings 25 yards downfield, and the Packers had first-and-10 at the Indy 34.
The Packers kept driving, down to the Colts' 23 with a first-and-10. They went shotgun, three wide, and Clifton made his most impressive pass-blocking move of the day, taking inside position as Freeney tried making a half-circle around Rodgers to disengage and get to the quarterback. Clifton wasn't having it, and this was where Clifton's speed -- the kind of speed that can shut out a player of Jared Allen's caliber -- became apparent. On the next play, tackle Darrell Reid was flagged for a neutral zone infraction, which was symptomatic of the Colts' defensive frustration.
On their first pass play of the second quarter, it became clear that the Packers didn't believe they had to double Freeney anymore, even on longer throws. From his own 11, Rodgers hit Donald Driver over the middle for a 24-yard gain, and Clifton again kept Freeney at bay, basically laughing off a cosmetic spin move at the end. Against a quick-strike team like the Packers, you're better off making either speed or power your game plan -- this offense gets the ball in the air too quickly for exotic inside moves. But even on longer plays, where Rodgers has to wait for his receiver to cross to the middle, Clifton was able to handle Freeney with ease.
Clifton's extremely good at picking up speed-rushing ends from an angle, as he did to Freeney with 8:20 left in the first half. Freeney tried to drive inside at the snap, but Clifton proved to be far too powerful, and his technique too good, for that to happen. By the end of the first half, Clifton was starting to exert physical pressure on Freeney, forcing him lower to the ground and taking away whatever leverage he had.
Clifton was going to have some advantages coming into this game - the Colts didn't blitz a lot, which meant that he wouldn't have to deal with Freeney's speed and someone else's power at the same time. Still, his ability to take that speed and consistently push it out of the way really impressed me. He also displayed the ability to drive-block when facing end Josh Thomas on certain plays. Clifton is a classic grinder -- he's missed only one game since returning in 2003 from the Sapp injury -- and he's playing as well as any team can ask of its premier offensive lineman. Freeney displayed good speed and agility; he was simply defeated by an opponent playing at a very high level.
A good article describing the play of Clifton vs. Freeney is last week's game. I don't think we realize how important Clifton is week after week for our offense to work.