NASHVILLE — The horseshoe on their helmets could just as easily stand for U-turn.
The Indianapolis Colt defense, once a sad sidekick to football's most explosive offense, is the NFL's out-of-the-blue success story of the season.
In their 31-10 trampling of the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, the Colts nearly made league history. Already, they were only the fourth team in the Super Bowl era to hold its first three opponents to fewer than 10 points. And they nearly became the first team to do it four times in a row, just missing when Tennessee scored its only touchdown with less than five minutes to play.
If there's a dominant leader on the Colt defense -- a counterpart to MVP quarterback Peyton Manning, if you will -- it's defensive end Dwight Freeney, who led the league with 16 sacks last season and arguably has emerged as the most disruptive defensive player in the NFL.
"He doesn't just spin, he spins with velocity," said Tennessee tackle Brad Hopkins, who played remarkably well against Freeney, keeping him away from quarterback Steve McNair all afternoon. "Dude can snap ankles."
In the end, Freeney, 25, could wind up snapping records too. He has 44 sacks in 51 games, which, according to Stats LLC, is the highest per-game average since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.
From his squatty size to his Terminator-like training methods to his unorthodox diet, the 6-foot-1, 268-pound Freeney doesn't fit the mold of typical defensive ends.
"I'm like that wildflower in a field of daisies," he said. "I'm that unusual animal you've never seen before."
Pro football's Terminator plopped into a leather recliner in his bedroom, hiked up the legs of his shorts and revealed thighs that looked as thick as Gatorade buckets. He attached conductive pads to his arms and legs and plugged them into an Accelerated Recovery Performance (ARP) machine on the floor next to him. The device zapped him with a steady electric current that stimulates blood flow and helps speed recovery after a workout.
At his fingertips was a laptop computer, loaded each week with offensive video clips of the upcoming opponent. The game tape is shot from the sideline and end-zone angles, and it features dozens of plays sorted into very specific categories. The Colts use playing-card terminology to catalog the various formations, so, for instance, the plays are broken into groups called ace passes, queen passes, king passes and the like.
As the volts pumped through him, Freeney used a remote control to wheel back and forth through plays on his 60-inch plasma TV. He made liberal use of the frame-by-frame, looking for the most subtle of pre-snap clues that might indicate what an offensive lineman was going to do -- the twitch of a leg muscle, a tiny glance, an all-but-imperceptible leaning one way or another.
"Sometimes, I know the play even before the ball's snapped," he said. "Looking at film is like studying a crime scene. I'm the investigator."
Watching film can be deathly boring, and Freeney admitted he has been known to doze off in the chair, remote in hand, ARP machine crackling away. But he doesn't sleep for long. He's usually jolted awake by the unsettling thought of some 300-pound lug squashing him with a block.
In reality, offensive tackles have a difficult time reaching to get a hand on him. Freeney lines up wide -- far wider than typical defensive ends -- and is relentless in his pursuit of quarterbacks. He led the league in sacks last season, despite being double-teamed on a regular basis. He came off the ball against Cleveland last week and was met at the line of scrimmage by the threesome of tackle L.J. Shelton, tight end Billy Miller and running back Reuben Droughns.
"I was laughing hysterically," Freeney said. "We were all laughing. Billy Miller was looking at me like, 'It [stinks] we have to do this. But we got you.' "
When Freeney attracts special attention, it creates opportunities for his teammates on the line. Defensive tackle Montae Reagor, who lines up next to him at right defensive tackle, collected five sacks through three weeks, one more than his combined total in his four seasons with the Denver Broncos.
"If you're going to double- or triple-team Dwight, other guys are going to make plays," defensive tackle Larry Triplett said. "That just makes me feel good."
Last season, Freeney became the first Colt to lead the league in sacks. Anything he can do to disrupt the charmed life of a player he calls the "golden child."
"There's just something about quarterbacks," Freeney said. "All their life they've been considered the untouchables. Protect the quarterback. Like he's the king of the game. It's just ridiculous. So when I get back there, I want to dismantle him."
Freeney needs no reminder that the most revered, recognizable player on the Colts is quarterback Peyton Manning.
"I like 99% of Peyton," he said. "But he's a quarterback."