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Freeney, Mathis provide stability on Colts' defense

Monday, December 1, 2008


AP Sports Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can deliver knockout punches faster than anyone on Indianapolis' defense.

Using speed and leverage to get past much larger offensive linemen, they schedule regular meetings in opposing backfields and routinely turn carefully calculated game plans into utter chaos.

Just ask Cleveland.

Freeney's timely fourth-quarter swipe knocked the ball out of Derek Anderson's hands Sunday, and Mathis' ensuing scoop and 37-yard sprint produced the only touchdown in an uncharacteristic 10-6 victory -- Indy's fifth straight.

"It seems like it's been someone different every week, but Robert has a knack," coach Tony Dungy said Monday. "Per play, he's probably made more big plays for us over the last five years than anyone on the team."

That's saying something when you have a roster that includes more than half-a-dozen Pro Bowlers, two league receiving champs, two 1,000-yard rushers, a two-time league MVP, the reigning defensive player of the year and even the NFL's best clutch kicker.

While players like Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, Bob Sanders and Freeney routinely draw national attention, Mathis has done much of his dirty work in relative obscurity. He has never been to the Pro Bowl and his passing of Duane Bickett for No. 2 all-time on the Colts' career sacks list was lost in the shuffle Sunday.

But in Indianapolis, Mathis is regarded as one of the keys to a defense that has shown steady improvement this season despite not being at full strength.

The list of missing contributors includes:

-- Cornerback Marlin Jackson, who sustained a season-ending knee injury just before the winning streak started.

-- Cornerback Kelvin Hayden, who missed six games after having knee surgery -- three during the streak.

-- Sanders, the reigning defensive player of the year, who has missed the last three games with swelling in his right knee and five previous games with a high ankle sprain.

-- Defensive tackle Ed Johnson, whom the Colts released after he was charged with drug possession in early September.

Team President Bill Polian said on his weekly radio show Monday night that middle linebacker Gary Brackett injured his right leg during Sunday's win at Cleveland, but the team didn't know the extent of the injury. Polian said he was still awaiting test results, and Dungy said it was unlikely Brackett would play this week against Cincinnati.

If Brackett is out, the Colts are likely to move outside linebacker Freddy Keiaho to the middle as they did Sunday, and re-insert Tyjuan Hagler into the starting lineup. Hagler started seven games for Indy last season.

Defensive tackle Keyunta Dawson also could miss a couple of weeks with a pulled right hamstring.

But thanks in large part to the pressure applied by Freeney and Mathis, the Colts haven't missed a step.

Since the start of November -- a stretch that includes victories at Pittsburgh, San Diego and Cleveland, and home wins over New England and Houston -- the Colts (8-4) have allowed 17.6 points per game and much of the explanation goes to the fierce pass-rushing duo who have stabilized the defense.

"You can't put a price on them, and that's what those guys live for," Dungy said.

Critics never thought it would be this way.

When the Colts took Freeney with the 11th overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft some contended he could not be an every down player with his smallish body. All the 6-foot-1, 268-pound defensive end has done is produce a team record 68 sacks, win a league sacks title, force 35 fumbles and play in three Pro Bowls.

Mathis has taken advantage of his speed and the extra attention opponents typically pay to Freeney, too.

Many thought Mathis, who is listed at 6-2, 245 pounds, was better suited to playing linebacker when he was drafted in the fifth round in 2003 by the Colts. But the Alabama A&M alum started on the defensive line and, after a brief experiment at linebacker, returned to his natural position where he now has 51 sacks, 29 forced fumbles and one career touchdown.

This season, Freeney and Mathis have been among the league's best again.

They've combined for 17 sacks, been credited with 35 pass rushes and eight forced fumbles in 12 games.

Plus, Mathis has a game-winning score, a chance to earn his second career conference defensive player of the week award and a Pro Bowl selection that Dungy believes he has earned.

"Robert had two big rushes for sacks and then the play to scoop the ball up and score, that's something that doesn't happen all the time," Dungy said. "I was happy for him because he has worked hard, and if anyone deserves credit for making plays, it's Robert."

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