By Tom James
INDIANAPOLIS — Robert Mathis is going home for Thanksgiving this week.
The Indianapolis Colts’ fifth-year defensive end was born and raised in Atlanta, where he attended McNair High School. Interestingly, tonight’s nationally televised game with the Falcons will be his first-ever visit to the Georgia Dome.
“That’s my home team. I root for us first and then I root for them second,” Mathis conceded earlier this week. “It’s going to be good. I’ve never played at home and I’ve never been in the Georgia Dome. So it’s going to be an experience for me.”
How could a kid growing up in Atlanta, with an obvious fondness for the city’s professional teams, not see a game in one of the city’s biggest sports venues? Easy, according to the soft-spoken defensive lineman who played collegiately at Alabama A&M.;
“I stayed in the city, but I’ve just never been to a football game there. I’ve never to [the Dome,” Mathis said.
“So it’s going to be an enjoyable experience for me,” he explained, joking that the cost of purchasing enough tickets for family and friends might set him back a bit financially.
“I’m looking at a 100 [people]. They’re going to be well-fed and they’re going to be rowdy. They’re going to be cheering at the Dome. I might be playing this game for free what with all the people I know that are going to be there.”
Mathis — who has his own website at
www.robertmathis.com — hopes to give his entourage a lot to cheer about. Chances are that he will. With the loss of three-time Pro Bowl performer Dwight Freeney to a season-ending foot injury, it will be up to the 6-foot-2, 245-pound speed rusher to provide some much needed pressure on Atlanta’s two-headed quarterback tandem of Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich.
“We’re going to try and contain them, try and keep them inside [the pocket],” Mathis said, adding that the Falcons can be dangerous running the ball with Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood. “Not let them get loose on you. Their running backs can hurt you too. They really run hard and they can hurt you if you aren’t careful.”
While Freeney has gotten the most attention between the Colts’ two starting defensive ends since they were paired together a year ago, it’s been the cat-quick Mathis who has gotten the biggest share of the sacks over the last two seasons (15.5 to 9.0). He now has 41 career sacks and is closing in on Freeney’s current career franchise mark of 60.
Mathis’ success as an every-down defensive end may have come as quite of surprise to many NFL pundits who weren’t quite sure where Indianapolis planned to play him. He was thought of as an athletic, but undersized, defensive lineman in college who would probably make the move to outside linebacker on the professional level.
When he first came to the Colts as one of the team’s fifth-round draft choices in 2003, he was used primarily on special teams and as a situational pass rusher.
“Robert is a guy who, when he was young, we just kept playing him in those situations and saying, ‘He makes a lot of plays. He does a lot of things.’ Wherever we put him — on kickoff coverage, blocking his guy on [kickoff or punt return], rushing the passer. And then he got in there some [at defensive end] and they started running at him. And he held his own and made plays,” Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy recently recalled.
“Early in his career, he’d have 15 plays [on defense] and five tackles. It took us a while to get smart and figured that could extrapolate out to 20 tackles if he played 60 plays. He’s a good football player. And we knew that and our thing was always balancing productivity and not wearing him down. But he’s an exceptional player.”