TAMPA — It's a dirty job, and Donald Penn has to do it.
The Bucs left tackle, who has been facing a murderer's row of defensive ends, now finds himself at the center of a prime-time matchup on Monday Night Football.
Lined up across from Penn on Monday will be Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, a six-time Pro Bowl player who has more sacks than anyone since entering the league in 2002 (97). It's the latest in a string of gargantuan tests for Penn, who could use this game's spotlight to share his star quality.
Two weeks ago, at Minnesota, Jared Allen (three Pro Bowls) awaited. Last week against Atlanta, John Abraham (four Pro Bowls) was Penn's nemesis. Facing the best pass rushers week after week is the burden left tackles must bear.
"It's been the story of the season," Penn said.
And the story continues against arguably the best Penn has faced. You can tell Penn's admiration for Freeney by the hushed tones he has used all week. Penn is the offensive line's biggest talker. At times, you might say he's a bit boastful. And he'd usually take that as a compliment.
"If there's a camera, Penn's going to find it," right tackle Jeremy Trueblood said.
Said right guard Davin Joseph: "He's a really prideful person."
But Penn's low-key approach to this game tells you this is serious business for the 2010 Pro Bowl selection.
"I'm not trying to jinx myself," he said. "I'm not trying to go out there and lay a big egg. I'm just trying to go out there and keep playing consistently. (Freeney) is a great player. I have high respect for him. I have my work cut out for me. It's just going to be one of those battles. You saw him on Sunday. … He's a totally different player in prime time."
Penn referred to the two-sack performance Freeney had in a loss to the Steelers on Sunday night. Penn watched closely, his remote control in hand, often rewinding his DVR to analyze Freeney's repertoire of pass-rush moves. Before Monday's game, Penn will have watched all of Freeney's snaps this season repeatedly.
"He cuts like a receiver, like a (defensive back)," Penn said. "Some guys can't move like that."
And Penn has seen those moves before up close.
Penn's first NFL start, in relief of injured Luke Petitgout, came against Freeney in a loss in 2007 at Indianapolis. Freeney had a half-sack and two tackles, but Penn wouldn't exactly brag that his play had anything to do with that.
"I was in awe, man," Penn said. "It was so loud. And I was going against him. That game was like a big blur. Everything was going so fast. It was my first start, and I was going against Dwight Freeney.
"But I've grown as an athlete. He's grown as athlete. I think I'm a lot better now. I know I'm a lot better."
Freeney barely remembers Penn. But in watching Penn on film, Freeney says what the Bucs say about their prized left tackle.
"He has good feet, (and) he has good athletic ability for a guy who has decent size," Freeney said of the 6-foot-5, 305-pound Penn. "It's going to definitely be a challenge for me. Like I said, he has good feet, so he can keep up and counter very well. It's going to be a challenge to make sure I sort of counter his counter, if that makes any sense."
Penn's foray into the starting lineup began a span of 63 consecutive starts. The Bucs rewarded him with a $48 million contract extension last season, convinced he is key to the success of Josh Freeman. Seeing how Penn protects the blind side of the franchise quarterback, it's hard to question the investment.
"I've watched him mature, and I've watched him develop," coach Raheem Morris said. " … He's grown up and become one of those shutdown left tackles."
This season, Penn held his own against Allen (one sack) and made Abraham a nonfactor. All that's left is to keep up this pace against one of the best pass rushers of this era.
It's a lot to ask, then again, that's the job.