KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Rookie offensive tackle Donald Stephenson’s Welcome to the NFL Moment came against one of the NFL’s most feared pass rushers: Denver’s Elvis Dumervil.
Stephenson, with some double-team help, kept Dumervil from sacking Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn on that late-November day, but, to parody a popular song, He ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
This Sunday, if Stephenson makes his sixth start in seven weeks in place of Branden Albert, who is questionable with a back injury, he’ll go against one of the NFL’s premier pass rushers of this decade in Indianapolis’ Dwight Freeney, whose 105.5 career sacks rank fifth among active players and 23rd in league history.
“He’s a beast,” said Stephenson, the Chiefs’ third-round draft pick from Oklahoma. “The guy has everything — power, speed and a great inside move. That’s what makes him great.”
Even if Albert, who has been limited in practice this week, starts on Sunday, the absence of tight end Tony Moeaki due to a concussion leaves the Chiefs with only one tight end, Steve Maneri. So unless the Chiefs activate DeMarco Cosby from the practice squad, Stephenson could be playing a lot as an extra tight end, a role he has filled this season in goal-line and short-yardage situations. He even started a game in that spot at San Diego.
In addition to studying tape of Freeney’s moves, Stephenson has enlisted the help of Albert and right tackle Eric Winston, who is familiar with Freeney from his days in Houston, an AFC South rival of the Colts. Winston will match up against the Colts’ other pass rusher, Robert Mathis, who has a team-leading eight sacks.
Freeney has just three sacks this season because he’s been battling a high-ankle sprain he sustained on opening day. The Colts also transitioned from a 4-3 to a 3-4 front this season, so he’s not rushing on every pass play.
“Freeney is a problem; whether his sack numbers are up or down, he causes issues wherever he’s lined up,” said Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. “Sometimes it’s on the right, sometimes on the left … and Mathis is pretty good on the other edge at rushing.”
Freeney’s trademark spin move is what has set him apart and enabled him to produce at least one sack in 70 of his 141 career starts.
“These guys have moves you’ll never see from anyone else,” Winston said. “It’s like facing a knuckleball pitcher in baseball. You can’t simulate the spin moves in practice. You have to watch a lot of film and picture it in your mind.”
While Stephenson has performed admirably in one of the toughest positions for a rookie to master, his play has not been flawless. He was beaten pretty badly for a sack by Oakland’s Andre Carter in last week’s loss at Oakland.
But Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said he likes the “aggressive attitude” that Stephenson takes out to the field.
“It’s all about playing hard,” Stephenson said. “After every play, you want to go to the whistle. People say that’s playing mean, but this is what I was taught. It helps me stay into the game and excited about it. You have to create your own kind of tempo, and stay juiced up, stay hyped up, even when things are going bad. It helps you through it.
“Right now, I’m working on consistency. That’s what I keep hearing from coaches … to play at a high level every game against everybody every play. I’ve learned a lot from Albert and Winston. They tell you it’s not all about talent. It’s all about focus and intensity. It’s a lot more (intense) than college was. I’m adjusting to that.”
Stephenson never envisioned playing this much as a rookie. Another rookie, second-round draft choice Jeff Allen, starts next to him at left guard.
“When we got here, the veterans always said, ‘One of those days, you’re going to be in there,’” Stephenson said. “We, said, ‘Nah,’ … but sure enough we’re both on the left side, both being rookies.”
Allen and Stephenson could form the left side of the Chiefs’ offensive line for years to come. Albert will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and Ryan Lilja, who moved from left guard to center after Rodney Hudson suffered a broken leg, is 31 years old and has been battling knee and back injuries all season.
“I would hate to see Branden go,” Stephenson said. “He’s a good guy and has helped me a lot. I haven’t put much thought into that. Being a rookie is tough enough. I’m trying to survive game by game.”