INDIANAPOLIS – That the 2011 season has been one of many challenges for Indianapolis is understood.
The club has endured challenge after challenge and keeps performing with a level of integrity that has not subsided despite the results.
On Sunday against Carolina, the challenges continued. Indianapolis wiped out a 10-0 second-quarter deficit to tie matters at intermission. Indianapolis kept narrowing deficits in the second half, though it never could gain the lead. Down 27-19, a final chance to tie the game was snuffed out with 35 seconds remaining and the club suffered another setback.
The battling spirit was symbolized in many players, with defensive ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney being to prominent examples. The Pro Bowl ends typically shine as beacons of leadership, and Sunday against Carolina marked the 31st time each had a sack in the same game.
Freeney had a 20-yard sack of rookie quarterback Cam Newton in the second quarter that set up a field goal right before halftime. The sack by Mathis was one drive earlier to thwart a Carolina possession in a 10-7 game. For the contest, Freeney had two stops, one for a loss and two hits on Newton. Mathis had four tackles, one for a loss and two quarterback hits.
Both gave the relentless effort that has marked their careers, and that effort will continue until the final whistle of this season.
"There's not one player on this team who has given up," said Mathis. "We have to keep fighting. We're playing for each other. We will keep battling. … I'm making it. We're definitely not proud of our record. I am proud of how guys are fighting. It says a lot about us. It is what it is."
Mathis and Freeney each pushed his sack total to 5.5 for this season, while Freeney now has reached 99.5 for his career. Mathis is second to Freeney in club career sacks, with 79.5.
Freeney is on the verge of becoming the 26th NFL player to reach 100 career takedowns.
All numbers aside, one means the most to Freeney, the number of notches in the victory column.
"It feels good getting the sack," said Freeney. "It doesn't really (feel good with the game's outcome). I've never been a 'numbers' guy. They're (sacks) going to come when they come. One came today, but it wasn't good enough to win."
Freeney joins Mathis in lauding the defense for maintaining its high effort level. The effort is not something that is questioned, it is part of the culture.
"We don't quit," said Freeney. "We don't slow down, regardless of the circumstances. It's tough. A lot of teams out there would have given up already. We don't do that. That's our mentality."
Head Coach Jim Caldwell cited his Pro Bowl tandem for what they accomplished Sunday. As usual, some of their plays were eye-popping, while others by the duo are noticed with trained vision.
"Both Robert and Dwight gave good effort out there, and they always do," said Caldwell. "They provide great, great leadership. They really, really fought out there. Both came up with sacks. They got a guy (Newton) on the ground who is difficult to get down. They put pressure on him in key situations, and they also made plays in the running game away. Those two guys, the effort they give is tremendous, and the leadership they provide is outstanding as well."
Sunday marked the seventh game this season where Indianapolis was not able to get the lead. Regardless of the flow of the game, Freeney expects the defense to perform at maximum level.
All challenges must be faced.
"Absolutely. It's how it is," said Freeney. "It's not always going to be blue skies and sunny weather out there. Sometimes you have to weather the storm. There have been a lot of storms defensively (this season). We have not had the lead much, so we've been playing from behind. To be honest, that's no excuse. … Regardless of whether we have the lead or not, the defense has the same mentality. We have to go out there and stop them regardless of the situation, (just) get a turnover or stop them wherever they are on the field."
Newton brought his team to Indianapolis averaging 400 yards per game. Indianapolis (377) held the Panthers under their seasonal average. Carolina entered the game tied for the league lead with 58 plays exceeding 20 yards. Carolina had 15 plays that exceeded 10 yards and five that exceeded 20, and Mathis noted the challenge Newton presented.
"They have a quarterback who comes around once in a blue moon," said Mathis. "He can throw and run and presents big challenges in each area. We just had to get to him if we could. He got loose a couple of times, and we just had to weather the storm. We had to rely on team speed and team defense."
Freeney joined in with his opinion of the explosive rookie signal-caller.
"He's a quick guy," said Freeney. "I don't think he's anything different. He's like a Michael Vick-ish type of guy. They do a lot of great things with him to use his abilities. He's good. (We did) nothing different. We knew he had speed, and they were developing rushes. They're blocking seven-on-four. I had a blocker on me, so I had to displace him and then try to get him (Newton), and he was running full speed."
Newton joined Mathis and Freeney as stalwart talents in the NFL. Mathis has enjoyed watching Freeney produce his significant sack total.
"Get that man on the highway and see what happens," said Mathis. "He's one (sack) away from 100 (sacks for his career)."
Cornerback Jerraud Powers knows the play in the secondary ties in with what the duo can achieve on the line. He likes the disruption Freeney and Mathis cause.
"I'm a firm believer that if the defensive line is playing good, then the backside is playing good. It sort of ties in together," said Powers. "When we can hold coverage for a second longer, we know those guys (Freeney and Mathis) are going to be able to get to the quarterback and cause the havoc they cause. I thought today, they did a tremendous job. I think Freeney is a half-sack away from the 100-sack mark, which is truly remarkable. Whenever they get the opportunity to cause havoc, that's what they do."
Caldwell will keep his team looking forward for the final five games. He sees no issue with the effort of his troops.
"It always been a hallmark of our team is that guys don't stop," said Caldwell. "They hustle, they run hard. They do the little things that it takes and provide the effort you like. We just have to keep fighting to make something good happen for us down the stretch."