News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 6, 2008

Mathis makes it happen: Colts can turn to undersized defensive end for big plays in crucial moments

By Tom James

INDIANAPOLIS — Despite a six-year National Football League career in which he has recorded 51 career sacks, forced 29 fumbles and recovered 10 fumbles, Indianapolis Colts defensive end Robert Mathis has yet to garner a lot of league-wide attention.

Sure, Mathis was named as the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Week for his performance in last Sunday’s 10-6 win over Cleveland — a pair of sacks and a fumble recovery, which he returned 37 yards for the game’s only touchdown. But, for the most part, the honors have remained few and far between.

He has been one of the Colts’ premier special teams performers, a steady pass rusher, and a big-play producer. When teamed with fellow defensive end Dwight Freeney, Mathis gives Indianapolis one of the best 1-2 sack tandems in the NFL.

This season alone, the pair have combined for 17 sacks (Mathis 9, Freeney 8), 35 quarterback pressures (Freeney 23, Mathis 12), eight forced fumbles (four apiece) and three fumble recoveries (all by Mathis).

That being said, the fleet-footed 6-foot-2, 245-pound Atlanta native has never been selected to play in the Pro Bowl. Freeney, on the other hand, has made it to the post-season all-star game three times.

But that’s OK. Mathis isn’t fretting the lack of national attention. He just continues to go on about his business, quiet and unassuming off the field and in the locker room. Of course, that persona changes quite a bit once he gets into a game.

From reticent to raucous. Laid-back to highly charged. Need a big play in a crucial situation? Chances are Mathis will be there to get the job done.

From his sack and forced fumble that helped the Colts rally on the road against Houston earlier this season to his sack and forced fumble at San Diego two weeks ago. Offense not scoring any points? No problem, as evidenced by his fumble recovery (that was forced by Freeney) and run into the end zone in the win over Cleveland last week.

“That was my first touchdown at any level. Pee-wee, high school, college,” Mathis quietly noted in the Indianapolis lockerroom after the Browns game. “I wanted to do it right. I wanted to honor all my [Omega Psi Phi] fraternity brothers once I got into the end zone, to let them know that I hadn’t forgotten them.”

His buddies at Alabama A&M; certainly haven’t forgotten him either. After all, he set an NCAA I-AA single-season record with 20 sacks as a senior. After earning a degree in physical education, he proceeded to make his own highlight video and send it around to various NFL teams.

League scouts knew all about him already, but most teams had him pegged as being too small to play defensive end at the professional level. In fact, he had been projected as an outside linebacker by everybody. Well, everybody but the Colts.

“[Mathis] is one of those relentless guys who gets everything about of his ability, who knows what’s going on and plays just the way you coach him down in and down out. He plays harder than the guy he’s playing against most of the time,” Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy praised.

“He’s probably always done that. He’s one of those guys you just love to coach because it’s everything you talk about as a coach. How you should play, how you should prepare and how you should practice. Every job we’ve ever given him, whether it’s special teams, whether it’s playing against 280-pound tight ends. Whatever you give him, he’s going to get it done and against a lot of the odds.”

Mathis is one of those guys who is going to get noticed. His speed and quickness at the snap of the ball guarantee that. His tenacity at going one-on-one against bigger (often by a lot) offensive tackles and tight ends never ceases to amaze observers.

That was never more in evidence that in the win over the Browns last week. Mathis stayed low and overpowered Cleveland’s 6-5, 315-pound offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer. Not once, but twice. Both plays occurred midway through the fourth quarter and Indianapolis trailing 6-3.

“It’s a leverage game. You see guys like Robert and Dwight and [Jacksonville running back] Maurice Jones-Drew, [Pittsburgh strong safety] Troy Polamalu, Bob Sanders, guys that hit with effectiveness. You don’t have to be big. They have power and they have center of gravity and everything going for them. It’s not always size,” Dungy explains.

But it is all about having a sense of timing, of knowing when a big play needs to be made. Mathis has that quality.

“He does. We saw that on his college highlight tape that I think he made himself and passed it around to teams. [On the tape] you just saw play after play, whether it was blocked field goals, kickoff tackles, running across the field tackling a guy 40 yards downfield, you saw that in college and it’s transferred over to here,” the Colts coach said.

Following the 2005 season, Mathis inked a five-year extension with the Colts believed to be worth $30 million, making him one of the highest paid defensive ends in the league. He’s more than earned his money, especially this year.

“It seems like it’s been someone different every week in this five-game [winning] streak, but Robert has a knack. Per play, he’s probably made more big plays for us in the last five years than anyone on the team. He just plays hard every single play. We give him enough rest [rotating with defensive end Raheem Brock] so he’s not totally drained, but the chances he gets to go, he goes hard and generally makes something happen,” Dungy said.

“He had two big rushes for sacks, and then the play to scoop the ball up and score [against Cleveland], that was something that doesn’t happen all the time. I was happy for him because he has worked hard. And if anyone deserves credit for making plays, it’s Robert.”