News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 31, 2012

Mathis, Freeney must anchor unrecognizable defense

Tom James
Tribune-Star Correspondent

ANDERSON — Robert Mathis enjoys the idea of being called an outside linebacker who can still rush the quarterback. Dwight Freeney, on the other hand, would rather be referred to as a pass rushing defensiveend who will drop back in pass coverage on occasion.

Such is life on an Indianapolis Colts defense that is in the midst of a massive change in philosophy and style. The Colts, who have utilized a traditional 4-3 scheme (four linemen and three linebackers) for 18 years has changed to a 3-4 hybrid system (three linemen and four linebackers).

Mathis and Freeney have thrived as hands-on-the ground outside pass rushers. Freeney’s 102.5 sacks is a franchise career record, and he’s also forced 43 fumbles. Mathis, meanwhile, has accumulated 83.5 career sacks with 39 forced fumbles.

They’ve been quite the wrecking crew for Indianapolis over the years. But now, with new coach Chuck Pagano and first-year coordinator Greg Manusky leading the way, the Colts hope to show a new, more aggressive look on defense.

“From a standpoint of a pass rush, we know what [Freeney and Mathis] can do. From a sense of dropping a little bit [in pass coverage], it’s a little foreign to them. But I think over the last couple of months, we’ve been to [organized team activities], mini-camps and things of that nature. They’ve gotten a feel for it and they’re going to continue to get better during training camp,” Manusky explained recently. “So we expect great things from a pass rush like they always have. But now, it’s going to transform a little bit when they have to drop in space. It’s something new, something exciting.”

The defensive changes have excited Mathis, who opined a few times last season how he would like to play in a 3-4 defense like what the Baltimore Ravens employ at some point in his National Football League career. Freeney, meanwhile, is intrigued by the changes that are in store.

“You’ve got to buy in. You have to shift yourself out and buy in. I bought in all the way. I bought in after we went 2-14,” Mathis voiced Monday. “Everybody is hungry and ready to hunt. Everybody is having fun. You just have to get the grind out of the way, and that’s camp. So we’re going to do that and then we’ll be on our way.”

The biggest adjustment that the former fifth-round draft 2003 draft pick has encountered has been getting used to play standing up rather than getting down into a three-point stance.

“It’s very new uncharted territory for me. But I’m learning it, getting it, and enjoying the process. Space, coverage, and just being up. Seeing a whole different world that I’ve never seen before,” Mathis admitted. “Came up here in the offseason for the OTAs, tried not to miss a day. And just honed in on the minor details.

“It’s becoming more and more comfortable each day. I’m able to see a lot more than I did back in OTAs, and I’m able to react a lot quicker to it.”

As for Freeney, he’s still getting used to the idea that he’s going to be standing up for part of the game.

“It’s always been down. I’ve been doing the same thing for 10 years,” the Pro Bowl defensive end pointed out, adding that he plans to enjoy the transition. “It depends really on the position, the formation, our call. I get to play around with it a little more.

“It’s actually kind of fun and could actually help me because when you have your hand in the ground you can’t move. So sometimes in the game, I’ve liked to widen out a little bit. That’s a lot when you have your hand in the ground. But now you get to move, now you can play with your alignment. It kind of gives the offensive tackle some problems.”

That’s the deciding factor for Freeney, who many observers figure isn’t cut out to play in a 3-4 defense on a regular basis. He aims to prove his detractors wrong.

“You don’t know where I’m going to be at. The offensive tackle, it’s not easy for him. It creates some hesitation for the offensive tackle too. It’s not always about me. [The offensive tackle] has more things to worry about. There could be a guy blitzing in that B gap so he might not kick out as fast. There’s certain things he has to worry about, not just if I’m getting off the ball the same way,” Freeney voiced.

“[The Colts defensive coaches are] going to allow me to a lot of what I’ve done. You’ll see me with my hand down, that’s going to happen and they have allowed me so far to able to do so. There’s going to be situations where I can’t have my hand down. It’s fine. But most times you are probably going to see my hand down. It’s really not going to be a big difference.”

• Injury list — Rookie wide receiver Griff Whalen (foot), inside linebacker A.J. Edds (knee), offensive guard Ben Ijalana (knee) and inside linebacker Jerry Brown (knee) sat out Monday’s afternoon practice.

Edds tweaked his left knee midway through Sunday afternoon’s workout and left the practice early. He was scheduled to undergo an MRI on Monday but the results have not been determined. Ijalana, meanwhile, was also scheduled for an MRI after apparently re-injuring the same left knee that sidelined him for most of the 2011 season.

Brown was wearing a knee brace during Monday’s afternoon practice. The nature and extent of his injury was not known.

• Luck’s day — Rookie quarterback Andrew Luck unofficially completed 28 of 37 passes for three touchdowns and did not throw an interception in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills Monday afternoon.

Luck had touchdown passes to rookie wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, rookie tight end Coby Fleener and veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne. He very nearly had a fourth touchdown toss, this one to wide receiver Donnie Avery, but the ball was batted away in the back corner of the end zone by cornerback Jerraud Powers.

Hilton’s catch and run was the play of the day as Luck fired a 40-yard pass down the left sidelines. The first-year player from Florida International caught the ball in stride and took it the rest of the way for the TD.

Second-year safety Jermale Hines also returned an intercepted Drew Stanton pass for a touchdown.

• Pads on today — The Colts will break out pads for the first time today. NFL teams have to wait four days after camp starts, including two days in shorts and helmets, before they can conduct a full-contact practice.

“I can’t wait until [this afternoon]. I’ve said it before. [Today] is when the rubber meets the road. When you are in shorts, you get to see athleticism. You get to see guys run around. The mental part you get and you understand. You’re always saying is that we’ll find out a lot about everybody when we put the pads on,” Pagano said.

• No to the Steelers — A fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers was spotted in the grandstands wearing a jersey of his favorite team during Monday afternoon’s practice.

“It’s kind of our motto that you either all the way in or all the way out. It took some prying. It wasn’t easy. But we saw it early [in the workout]. Zibby [safety Tom Zbikowski] saw it and said, ‘Coach, we have to do something about that.’ So I went over there. He was a huge [Bruce] Arians fan, obviously, and [running back] Mewelde Moore [both former Steelers],” Pagano explained.

“With a little bit of coaxing and a brand new Andrew Luck jersey, I said, ‘Look, you’ve got to put on this jersey. If you do, you get to stay. If you don’t, we’ll have to escort you out of here.’ He wanted to stay and see practice and then meet Bruce and [Moore] afterwards. So it was a good deal.”

The Colts coach was asked if the fan would have really been told to leave.

“Absolutely,” the Indianapolis coach said with a smile and a laugh. “He was a Steelers fan. I would have gotten a lot of cheers [from the approximately 1,800 Colts fans in attendance Monday afternoon].”