In the fifth game of his 2002 rookie season, when Indianapolis Colts standout Dwight Freeney was still only a situational defender and getting on the field primarily for passing downs before moving into the starting lineup later in the campaign, the young end logged abut a half-dozen snaps against Jonathan Ogden in a 22-20 victory at the RCA Dome.
The scant exposure to the Baltimore Ravens star left offensive tackle, a seven-time Pro Bowl player, produced no tackles and no sacks for Freeney that day. But it left, Freeney acknowledged after a Thursday morning walk-through, a lasting memory.
"What I remember," Freeney said, "is that he is really good. I mean really good. A special player at that position, maybe the best, and certainly the best guy that I've ever gone up against. I've got nothing but total respect for him."
Given the similar sentiments espoused by Ogden, when asked about Freeney earlier this week, a meeting of the Mutual Admiration Society could be convened at the RCA Dome on Sunday evening. In a game where most of the focus has been on Peyton Manning's pursuit of the single-season touchdown pass record, and justifiably so, the battle in the trenches between the premier left tackle in the NFL and the league's hottest pass rusher has been somewhat obscured.
But that doesn't make it any less significant.
With three sacks in each of Indianapolis' last two games, Freeney, wreaking havoc now on quarterbacks leaguewide, leads the NFL with 13 sacks. That already ties, with three games still remaining, his career-best, established in his rookie campaign. And almost as significant is that it gives Freeney, the Colts' first-round pick in the 2002 draft, 37 sacks in less than three full seasons.
The league doesn't maintain official statistics on such esoteric matters, but it's believed to be the second-most sacks ever recorded by a defender in his first three NFL seasons. Among the top 20 sackers in NFL history, only former Chicago Bears standout Richard Dent, with 37½ sacks in his first three seasons, has more.
By way of comparison, Jevon Kearse had 36 sacks in three seasons. Bruce Smith posted 33½, Simeon Rice 27½, Jason Taylor 16½ and Michael Strahan 13. Even counting the two years that he spent in the USFL before moving to the NFL, the great Reggie White had one-half sack fewer in his first three professional seasons than Freeney has now. With three games remaining, and on a roll in which he is registering sacks in bunches, Freeney could have 40 sacks on his career resume by the end of the season.
It is, for sure, a top-shelf group with which Freeney is keeping company. But even Ogden conceded Freeney's spot in the elite subset is well deserved.
"I have to block him," said Ogden, "and there is no way around it. But he might be the fastest (pass rusher) off the ball in the entire league right now. He's a guy who comes hard on every snap."
It will be interesting to see if the Ravens blocking scheme includes double-teaming the Indianapolis star, as he tries to make quarterback Kyle Boller his latest victim, or if the Baltimore coaches feel Ogden can handle Freeney one-on-one. Ogden, who has played in the last seven Pro Bowl games, has missed four contests because of knee problems in 2004, and has surrendered two sacks in nine outings.
Even against the double-teams, the relentless Freeney is compressing the pocket, as he and situational left end Robert Mathis have become the NFL's most feared pass rush tandem. Thanks to the 23½ sacks for which the pair has combined, Indianapolis is second in the NFL with 41 sacks, and 37 of those have come from defensive linemen.
Since the Colts have blitzed an average of just 5-7 times per game, coach Tony Dungy and coordinator Ron Meeks count on pressure from their super-quick front four, and that unit has produced plenty of heat in recent weeks.
"It's funny, because you can maybe beat your man 15 or 20 times in a game, and not get a single sack," said Freeney. "And then, some other game, you might beat him just five times and get two or three sacks. But the way we play, we feed off each other, and when one guy gets a sack, everyone wants in on the act. I know, if I get one, I want a second and then a third."
Indeed, the former Syracuse standout now has eight multiple-sack games in 46 career starts, including four this season, all in the last eight outings. In that stretch, in fact, Freeney had collected 11 of his 13 sacks for the year. Certainly he has become a more diverse pass rusher over the past season, a guy who is no longer simply an upfield sack threat, and whose repertoire has become pretty complete, with inside moves and counters.
Freeney and Ogden, who outweighs the Colts end by roughly 80 pounds, agree the key to Sunday's matchup is in the handfighting they will do. "Once I get my hands on him, I will have to be really physical," Ogden said. Freeney noted that he has to create a degree of separation, vary his rush angles and methods, avoid staying engaged for too long.
"He's a big, big man," Freeney said of Ogden. "He can make a mistake technique-wise, and still have enough raw size to compensate for it, just by (enveloping) you. The thing for me is to use everything at my disposal. I mean, the first thing you think of when you see me is, 'Well, he's all about speed, because he sure isn't that big.' Tackles in this league, they're used to seeing the 6-feet-4 pass rusher, and that's not me. So maybe I can surprise them a little, you know?"
Dungy has aptly termed Freeney and Mathis "leverage players," meaning they possess innate core strength, knowledge of angles, an uncanny knack for getting off blocks and maneuvering past offensive tackles on their forays into the pocket. Freeney agreed with that assessment and even applied a formula from physics to help explain his success.
"I just think that explosiveness, velocity coming from the outside, all combines with your weight to give you sort of deceptive strength," he said. "Against a guy as big as (Ogden) is, I'm going to need all that and then some. He's going to be a challenge but I just hope to keep things rolling."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.