Back in Week Five of the 2007 season, Tampa Bay Buccaneers left tackle
As he took the field that October day, Penn, a former undrafted free agent out of Utah State, was an unheralded tackle prospect who had never played a regular-season snap until the week before, when he relieved an injured Luke Petitgout at Carolina.
Now, looking back on his first ever start, Penn says the score of the game made it one he'd like to forget (the Colts won 33-14), but it's fuzzy in his memory for other reasons too.
“It was crazy,” Penn said. “I was in awe. It was so loud. That game was like a big blur. Everything was going so fast. It was my first start and I was going against Dwight Freeney. There’s not too much I remember about that game. We weren’t on the field that long. It was the Peyton Manning show that game. It was like a blur.”
Fast forward to the present, and Penn will once again square off against Freeney as the Bucs take on the Colts on Monday Night Football. While the matchup is the same, much has changed, especially for Penn.
“I’ve grown as an athlete,” Penn said. “I know I’m totally better than I was then.”
Penn's assessment of his personal improvement is hard to argue. Now a full-time starter and one of the top left tackles in the league – with a 2010 Pro Bowl berth to prove it – Penn has made tremendous strides since that October day four years ago, and he plans to prove it in his second battle with Freeney.
“I’m a totally different player,” Penn said. “A lot smarter, a lot more technically sound, and it’s going to be a combination of everything. I have my work cut out for me. Everything is going to have to be on point.”
Penn's head coach, Raheem Morris, went even further in describing just how far his left tackle has come.
“Donald, when he first got here, was just a really raw, athletic guy,” Morris said. “I’ve watched him mature, and not just as a person but on the football field. I watched him develop in that room and take on a role that’s a little bit different for him. He’s done a nice job of that. He’s grown up. He’s become one of those shut-down left tackles who you don’t even worry about. He’s been able to play well, at a high level, and that’s what you want from your starting left tackle. He’s become a leader. He wasn’t put in here as a leader, he’s become one. He’s one of those guys that came up from the bottom.”
Things will have come full circle for Penn when he steps onto the field against Freeney and the Colts on Monday night, but the early part of the 2011 season has already proven to be a tough test in and of itself. Penn has already faced elite pass rushers Jared Allen of the Vikings and John Abraham of the Falcons in consecutive weeks, and has played very well against the best the league has to offer.
Freeney, a nightmare for any left tackle with his freakish speed, is just the latest challenge for Penn – but it's one he relishes.
“Freeney, he cuts like a receiver, like a DB,” Penn said. “Some of those guys, they can’t move like that, but he’s quick. He moves like he’s a DB or a linebacker. He’s not supposed to be that fast, that big. He has a nice little arsenal. He has a nice spin move, a nice bull rush, and he definitely has speed. He’s an all-around player.
“[Facing top pass rushers] has been steady, it’s been the story of the season. But he’s a great player. I watched the [Colts] game Sunday, and he did a great job. I’ve watched him over the years. He’s one of those guys on the top of the list. It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a tough battle, and I’m going to have my work cut out for me, but I’m going to be ready. We’ll see.”
Penn's preparation is perhaps one of the more stark contrasts between his very first matchup against Freeney and now. While he's always had the physical tools to excel at the NFL level, Penn says the mental aspect of his game – especially a rigorous amount of film study – is a major part of his current success, especially when it comes to tough battles against players of Freeney's caliber.
“I watch everything,” Penn said. “I’m going to watch the game when I played him my first time, though that’s totally different. I’m going to watch every snap that he’s had this season before Monday.”
Freeney's most recent effort in the Colts' last-second loss to Pittsburgh – two sacks, and a forced fumble that was returned for a touchdown – has certainly caught Penn's attention, if it wasn't already squarely focused on this matchup.
“The performance he put in on Sunday night makes you go ‘ooh,’ makes you say, ‘ahh,’” Penn said. “I was sitting there watching it and rewinding it, and he’s a great player. I’m going to study him, just like I’ve been doing all week, and we’ll see what happens.”
A return to where it all started, a battle with a premier defensive player, and a prime time game on Monday Night Football – could this game get any bigger for Penn?
“I’m not trying to jinx myself or anything,” Penn said. “I’m not trying to go out there and do anything big. I’m just trying to go out there and play like I’ve been playing and play consistently. Hopefully I do that. He’s a great player and I have my work cut out for me. I have a high respect for him, and it’s going to be one of those battles. You saw him on Sunday – he shows up for those prime-time games. He’s a totally different player on prime time.
“We have to be on our ‘A’ game. We can’t slip up. These hungry teams are the scariest teams. Their defense is playing very well. It’s a big challenge for me, and it’s a big challenge for this team, especially the offense. I’ve got my work cut out for me. I’m going to focus, study hard, and I’m going to go out there and do my thing.”