Freeman needs to help stop Rice

The Colts' run defense didn’t post run-defense numbers you’d expect to correlate with an 11-win team.

The Colts gave up 104.4 rushing yards a game (29th in the NFL) and 5.1 yards a carry (31st). They lost a bunch of people on the defensive line.

Free-agent addition Brandon McKinney didn’t make it to the regular season before he landed on IR. Josh Chapman, who the team knew might not play this season when he was drafted in the fifth round out of Alabama, didn’t make it back from his knee rehabilitation. Drake Nevis missed the final seven games and is on IR. Antonio Johnson missed the final two games.

Behind that three-man front, the linebackers have had to do more than can reasonably be expected.

The front will face perhaps its biggest challenge of the year in Baltimore running back Ray Rice on Sunday.

Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky spoke to Indianapolis media Thursday about Rice, saying that Maurice Jones-Drew is the most similar back the Colts have faced this season.

“Good running back, great sight lines, a hard runner to bring down,” he said. “We need multiple people to corral him and put him down. He’s got great vision. He sees the hole and does a great job of cutting back and making plays in the open field and making guys miss. We’ve got to corral him and get him down.”

Getting run on has not killed the Colts, in part because they’ve found the most crucial stops.

“We just survive; we pull together when we need to in crunch time,” inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman told me. “We’ve had a lot of new guys and it’s been about the next man up. The 3-4 is all about being on the same page.”

The Colts credited Freeman with 203 tackles this season. When they signed him out of the CFL, he figured he’d have to make the team as a special-teamer.

“If I had to tread water, I would have done that too,” he said.

Freeman had seven visits scheduled with NFL teams last January. He met with the Jets, the Buccaneers and the Steelers before he got to the Colts.

He cancelled the rest of the trips and signed the deal the Colts offered because he felt they were such a good fit.

General manager Ryan Grigson was hired on Jan. 11. He signed running back Darren Evans to a future contract on the 17th and Freeman two days later.

The linebacker shined in camp, but even the biggest optimist couldn’t have expected that Freeman would plug in and stick for 16 starts after Pat Angerer cracked his foot. Angerer missed five games, and interim coach Bruce Arians said the 2010 second-round pick wouldn’t be back to pain-free, full-strength play until next season.

Freeman didn’t know what to expect, but he never doubted he could play in the NFL.

When he failed to make the Titans as an undrafted free agent out of Mary Hardin-Baylor in 2008, Tennessee had a starting lineup at linebacker of Keith Bullock, David Thornton and Stephen Tulloch as well as some young draft picks behind them.

Freeman wound up with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL in 2009.

His first remembrance of football in Canada?

“Cold,” he said.

“It was fun,” he continued. “It was a great experience. It’s a totally different game. I had to cover receivers. They don’t run the ball as much. I got to hone my skills.”

While he worked more in coverage in the CFL because of the nature of the game, he said he thinks he is a pretty balanced NFL linebacker, able to step up to tackle a running back or drop and cover.

Now, he’s a symbol for the Colts as they head to the playoffs. The right guy given the right opportunity can be a difference-maker. Having found one difference-maker to play weak inside linebacker, the Colts have one less spot to worry about as they continue to build their roster.