Perhaps Joe Thomas is spoiling Browns fans.
Despite already accumulating enough All-Pro credentials to last an entire career, the Browns' fifth-year left tackle isn't the most vocal or even visible of Browns players on a given Sunday. Because of – or possibly in spite of – Thomas' success, rarely do fans even notice just how essential the Wisconsin native has become to the Browns' hopefully burgeoning offensive success.
Yet, on a play where starting quarterback Colt McCoy is trampled by a stampeding defensive end, suddenly Thomas is at the front of the collective consciousness of Browns fans.
Such is life for an NFL offensive tackle.
Of course, a closer inspection reveals that McCoy had as much to do with his near demise as anyone else on the field.
This was a point not lost on Browns' head coach Pat Shurmur.
"Joe did a good job blocking the guy," Shurmur said. "You just don't have time to hold the ball on (Dwight) Freeney. I need to do a better job of instructing Colt to get rid of it."
Outside of McCoy channeling his inner Charlie Frye late in the first quarter, Thomas played what could be considered a nearly perfect game against Freeney – who is still one of the league's top pass rushers. Although the brutal hit on McCoy could linger like visions of Atlanta's John Abraham in the memories of Browns fans, it's even possible to suggest that Thomas dominated Freeney.
By my count, there were roughly a dozen pass attempts that necessitated a prolonged Thomas-Freeney matchup on Sunday and/or didn't include either a three-step drop by McCoy or some variation of a screen.
In most respects, Thomas won all but one of these matchups. And even then, he was pretty close.
Early on, Thomas engulfed Freeney on the Browns' first third down of the game. Thomas managed to grab onto Freeney's arms and wrap them inside his jersey numbers. This was a trend that continued for much of the game, as Thomas negated Freeney's maniacal spinning bursts simply by having quicker hands to wrap up the six-time Pro Bowler.
Later on the same drive, Freeney tried an old-fashioned power move as he lowered his head and bulled into Thomas. Thomas lost a bit of leverage on the play, but simply guided Freeney away from the pocket and out of McCoy's danger.
On the play that resulted in McCoy's hit, Freeney did beat Thomas by a half-step. Thomas pulled out of his stance a touch slow, allowing Freeney to slip his left arm underneath Thomas' helmet. Thomas couldn't fully recover with his hands, but still was able to push Freeney a step outside McCoy's pocket. Yet, McCoy appeared frozen in the pocket – the result of solid Indianapolis coverage downfield and a rare lack of available intermediate receiving options.
After Freeney's hit on McCoy, Thomas appeared to slightly adjust his stance at the line. On passing downs, Thomas' left leg crept back a few inches throughout the remainder of the game. However, for the most part, Thomas maintained his mostly vertical alignment – and a greater sense of heightened awareness.
Obviously, Shurmur maintained confidence in Thomas by not giving his four-time Pro Bowl tackle any help blocking Freeney. The only time such a thing occurred came late in the third quarter when rookie receiver Greg Little "chipped" Freeney at the beginning of his pass route. Also, the varied combination of quick out routes to Josh Cribbs and multiple screen passes may have predicated such a strategy.
"Going in we were talking about doing some more chipping and double-team stuff," Thomas said. "But the way the game played out it was more one-on-one."
Thomas continued to get the better of Freeney in the second quarter, as McCoy and the Browns' passing offense began to warm up. On a key third down completion to Mohamed Massaquoi, Freeney's attempted spin move landed him snug in Thomas' strait-jacket like embrace. A few plays later, Thomas was beaten by a step on the outside, but the veteran tackle pushed Freeney off balance. McCoy's radar – fully functioning now after his first quarter hit – forced him to step up, scramble and then hit Evan Moore for the team's first touchdown.
In the second half, Thomas continued his mastery of Freeney. By this point in the game, Freeney was either showing Thomas a straight power move, a spin or a dash to the outside. In each case, Thomas was able to physically re-direct Freeney. On one third quarter play, Thomas got away with a hand to Freeney's face, gave a bruising chest punch and then pushed Freeney inside.
For the remainder of the game, Thomas either shoved Freeney inside next to left guard Jason Pinkston or pushed Freeney far out of McCoy's pocket. In both instances, McCoy was able to step up and scramble outside his compromised pocket – which eventually led to some of the offense's biggest plays of the game.
As the game reached its fourth quarter depths, the Browns were already fully entrenched in victory mode. A steady dose of Peyton Hillis meant that Freeney's on-field impact was eliminated. In the end, Thomas emerged victorious over one of the league's highest profile defensive ends – a player who also doubled as one of the few real threats found on a Manning-less Indianapolis squad.
And for the faint of heart, Colt McCoy did survive.