When news broke this summer that 2013 sack leader Robert Mathis would miss the first four games of the season due to violating the NFL’s banned substance policy the talk turned to immediate doom and gloom. How would the team overcome his missing leadership on defense? And maybe more importantly, how will they make up for the sack production in his absence ? Make no mistake, the team will miss his production and will definitely miss his leadership, but the team must find a way to persevere without him. Much like last year’s loss of Reggie Wayne on offense, this will give the defense the same dose of cruel reality. Someone will have to step up and provide at least some production, even if it’s not the same level as Mathis. So, is it realistic to think that the team can survive without him?
Robert Mathis is adored by the fans because he embodies everything that is right in America. He came from a small school, was considered undersized, and was written off earlier as a recipient of another great Colts defensive player, Dwight Freeney. Mathis, however, proved that he could thrive in a system playing a different position, and more importantly, without the player that many said he benefitted from. The Colts are facing the following opponents without Mathis causing his havoc: Denver, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, and Tennessee. The first two games will be very difficult to get to the quarterbacks even with Mathis due to the style of their offensive schemes. But in games three and four, the Mathis-less defense should have little difficulty in causing problems in the opponent’s backfield.
The team is getting a golden opportunity to find out what they have besides Mathis; this may give an unknown role player the chance to make a name for himself. Bjoern Werner is the first benefactor of Mathis’ suspension and now has the opportunity to prove to fans the front office was justified in drafting him in the first round last year. Werner started off slow last year and was sidelined with an injury but by season’s end was making strides in terms of learning how to apply his defensive style to the NFL. Werner, like Mathis, was more comfortable playing defensive end with his hands planted in the dirt, but Coach Pagano and GM Ryan Ryan Grigson felt he had the necessary skill set to play outside linebacker. Many scouts compared Werner and his style of play to former Raven and current Browns player, Paul Kruger. It took him some time to develop and Werner seems to understand that he needed to prepare himself better mentally and physically- via off season conditioning and weight training. Werner has been mentioned by many observers to have been most impressive during training camp; now all that remains are preseason games and the regular season.
Being impressive in the preseason and training camp is one thing, but we all judge success during the regular season. Normally, Mathis would have gotten the lion’s share of work with the first team, but due to the suspension Pagano decided it was better to give Bjoern the workload early so he could acclimate to the position earlier in hopes that he would develop successfully for the start of the season. If Werner can provide the play the team thinks he can they will be in a much better position at OLB-Rush. Erik Walden, who subbed in for Mathis occasionally last season, proved not to be a good fit and instead served as more of stop gap than the “Next Man Up” mantra that has been the staple of the Colts’ philosphy.
As mentioned earlier, the offense last year was able to find out what they had in their young receivers after Reggie went down. DHB proved to be a mistake so the team had to rely on their core of young receivers – Hilton, Brazill, Rogers, and Whalen. By throwing these young players into starting roles, the team was able to discover they had legit talent who could potentially be long-term contributors. Now, the defense is getting the same oppurtunity. Werner will get a bulk of the snaps, but also look for other young players to get opportunities, like rookie Jonathan Newsome. Newsome was drafted out of Ball State (Go Cards!) and has been compared to Mathis due to similar playing styles and physical trends. Newsome has a long way to go, but if he progresses in practice and in the remaining preseason games then he should get an opportunity in the regular season when it matters.
Another way the team can help offset the loss of Mathis is to use players like Jerrell Freeman in blitz packages. Freeman not only stuffed the stat sheet with tackles last season but he added 5.5 sacks. Freeman, although small in stature, has tremendous closing speed. 2013 allowed Freeman to get more opportunities and I would expect the same this year. Since the team is short on pass rushers, the use of Freeman makes complete sense.
Another aspect to consider when examining the defense without Mathis is the addition of Arthur Jones. Jones comes over from Baltimore and is expected to help stop the run and apply pressure with Chapman and Redman. The defensive line is about the best we’ve ever seen from the Colts with their size being their biggest strength. If they can produce the pressure that many believe is possible, it should make the job much easier for the blitzing linebackers.
The first four games will give the team a good indication of what they have besides Robert Mathis as viable pass rush options. Werner will be given the opportunity to demonstrate his improvement from his rookie season. Also, the upgrades at DL and LB should prove that they can also be counted on to provide sacks. Mathis will be gone and missed, but these young guns should keep the seat warm until his return. And when he comes back – look out – as Mathis will be looking to make up for lost time.
To all NFL quarterbacks – you have been warned: the master of the strip-sack is angry and is coming for you.