Mathis' Fumble Return Gives Defensive End First Touchdown – and Colts a Key Victory
CLEVELAND, Ohio – The ironic thing about what Robert Mathis saw when he looked at the football on Sunday's game-turning play was to him, it didn't look like a football at all.
It looked different somehow . . . better.
A whole lot better.
"It actually looked like a pot of gold," the sixth-year defensive end said minutes after his 37-yard return with a fourth-quarter sack/fumble gave the Colts a 10-6 victory over the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium Sunday afternoon.
To the Colts, it just looked like another big play from a pair of players who long have been making big, momentum-changing plays.
Dwight Freeney, a three-time Pro Bowl defensive end, forced Browns quarterback Derek Anderson to fumble with a bull-rush sack early in the fourth quarter, and when Mathis – the team's sacks leader the past two seasons – returned it 37 yards for a touchdown, the Colts had their first lead of a nailbiting victory.
"Whether the offense is moving or not, scoring or not, we have a job to do, too," Freeney said moments after his team-leading eighth-sack. "It happens we got a chance to ice the game. We did. Sometimes, they (the Colts' offense) are going to have to bail us out. That's why it's a team concept.
"You always want to ice the game. I think we went out there and did that."
Said Colts defensive end Raheem Brock, "We needed that. It was a great play."
The play was not only big, it was the first career touchdown for Mathis, a player who consistently has made big plays for the Colts over the last half decade.
And it wasn't just the first NFL touchdown.
It was the first touchdown at any level.
As a result, Mathis said although he said he never considered falling on the ball to safely give the Colts possession – "I was scooping," he said afterward – neither did he have a great deal of confidence he would score.
"That's the first time I've ever run with a football, so my technique was a little off," Mathis said, smiling.
For Freeney, it was the 68th sack of his career. He has forced 35 fumbles. Of his eight sacks this season, four have forced fumbles.
Mathis, whose fourth-quarter sack knocked Browns quarterback Derek Anderson from the game, has a similar propensity for sack/fumbles, 50.5 career sacks and 29 fumbles forced.
On Sunday, the Colts had just one sack in the first three quarters, but when they got through, they did so at big times, with Freeney bull-rushing Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas before forcing the fumble that led to Mathis' touchdown and Mathis pulling a similar bull-rush to force a key sack on Cleveland's final possession.
Mathis also had a sack that stopped a Cleveland drive in the Colts eight in the first half.
"We played actually a lot of three-man rush to try to take away those passing lanes," Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said. "But when we had to get the pressures we did. Dwight's came on a three-man rush and Robert got after the quarterback at the end.
"Our rush has been timely, I guess is a good way to put it."
Timely, too, was Mathis' first touchdown, coming as it did in a game when the Colts failed to score an offensive touchdown for the first time in more than five seasons. And even as he made the play, he never was quite convinced it was going to be the play to give the Colts a fifth consecutive, heart-stopping victory in a month in which the Colts have fought their way into a solid position in the AFC playoff chase.
"It feels great," Mathis said. "I still don't know how to feel, because I'm thinking I'm going to get caught. Seeing all that grass in front of me, I just had to get it."
And if the victory came in a fashion few – including Mathis – expected, Brock said in another sense it came in a fitting way.
"The great teams, the championship teams, know how to win those close games," Brock said. "I think we're doing a good job of that right now. We have to keep it going. Everybody's stepping up at the right time – offense, defense and special teams. We have to keep it going."