INDIANAPOLIS – Jerrell Freeman's teammates call him “Baby Ray” these days, both a friendly tease and a sign of respect.
The “Ray” in question, of course, is Baltimore Ravens great Ray Lewis, a well-known measuring stick in terms of linebackers when it comes to production and intensity. Freeman might not lead a huddle with the vocal verve of Lewis, but he can deliver a similar blow.
“He's turned into a whale of a football player and really our defensive leader,” Colts interim coach Bruce Arians said. “He's gotten game balls. He's been a captain. It's a great honor for a young player like him to jump into this veteran group of guys on defense and then call him 'Baby Ray.' “
Freeman was an unknown, signed out of the Canadian Football League by Colts general manager Ryan Grigson. He might end up as Grigson's biggest coup.
Through the Colts' 7-4 start, Freeman leads the team with 101 tackles (60 solo), has six tackles for loss, two sacks, one interception and one forced fumble. He is fourth in the NFL in tackles.
He was credited with 16 tackles and a sack in the Colts' 20-13 win over the Buffalo Bills last Sunday. The Colts play at Detroit (4-7) at 1 p.m. this Sunday.
“He's a hell of a player,” Colts safety Antoine Bethea said. “We joke around with him, calling him Baby Ray, but he's sideline to sideline, making plays, picks, sacks, whatever. Jerrell has had a great year this year.”
Freeman, 26, remains humble. Part of that comes from the unorthodox route to the NFL from small-college Mary Hardin-Baylor University through the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders. He was not slated as a starter this season, but he stepped in when Pat Angerer was injured and now refuses to relinquish the job.
Freeman laughed after the game Sunday and said he would have to watch the tape to see his 16 tackles. He said he had no idea his numbers were that high.
“I'm out there thinking about different situations, hearing the call in my helmet,” Freeman said. “I get my relay calls, get my checks. As a linebacker, you've got a lot of things going on.”
The Colts defense has been better than expected in a lot of ways, some rough days (Jets, Patriots) aside. As coach Chuck Pagano and his staff switched from a 4-3 formation to a primarily 3-4, there were plenty of changes.
Freeman hadn't played a down with any of his teammates before this season.
“(Becoming a starter) says that I'm just able to work, work hard,” Freeman said. “I have a good team around me, a good D-line that allows me to use my speed sideline to sideline. My journey has been long, but I'm here now and willing to do whatever it takes to stay on that field.”
Freeman said the team has a goal every week of recording a shutout. Those are almost impossible in the NFL for any defense; even the Ravens' lowest has been a 9-6 win over the Chiefs.
“We don't want anybody to score any,” Freeman said. “That's our goal, leave that goose egg up there. Until we get that perfect game, we're never going to be satisfied. We're going to be working at it for a while.”
The Colts have some issues in the defense, and they'll have their work cut out for them to deal with the Lions' huge Calvin Johnson at receiver. Starting cornerback Vontae Davis might return this week, but that's a sentiment the team has issued for a few weeks now.
Freeman said he believes the defense continues to grow.
“We're getting better,” he said. “We're getting better every week. I know we had a bad loss (at New England), but we're learning from things. That's what good teams do. They learn from their mistakes, move on and don't make the same mistakes again.
“We need some more good games,” he said. “We're trying to get some (playoff) checks in January.”
Colts sign Heard, put Chapman and Moala on IR
The Colts signed former St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Kellen Heard on Tuesday, hoping to fill a need.
Defensive tackle Fili Moala suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Bills and Colts rookie nose guard Josh Chapman has joined him on the injured reserve list.
Heard (6-foot-6, 339 pounds) played eight games with the Rams this season, making five tackles, before being waived by the Rams on Nov. 10.
Chapman has been inactive since being drafted. He suffered a knee injury during his final season at Alabama last year.
“It's just time to get this knee to 100 (percent), so it's Beast Mode come next season,” Chapman tweeted.