INDIANAPOLIS – While some wondered how Robert Mathis would play without Dwight Freeney, a tag-team partner in his first 10 seasons, the first seven games this year have dispelled all doubts.
Mathis, named today with his third AFC Defensive Player-of-the-Month award, is the NFL's sack leader at 11.5, a total greater than four teams (Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York Giants, Jacksonville), while being more than his four nearest competitors, all of whom have played eight games.
Mathis is 4.5 sacks away from Freeney's franchise seasonal record (16.0, 2004). Freeney that year became the franchise's only NFL sack champion (sacks became an official statistic in 1982).
"I don't have any idea if that factors in. I think he's a self-starter," said Pagano when asked if Mathis is playing with more motivation to prove himself outside of Freeney's shadow. "I think he's a self-motivated guy. I think that's obvious at the level that he's played throughout his career. Whether that factors in or not, I don't know."
Mathis had a four-game multiple sack streak from weeks two through five this year, then had two more takedowns against Denver. The first one was a sack-strip-safety that spurred a nine-point run as the Colts took a second-quarter lead that held up in a 39-33 victory.
With 103.0 career sacks, Mathis's shadow is intruding on Freeney's franchise record of 107.5.
Freeney (seven) and Mathis (five) have combined for 12 of the franchise's 18 double-digit sack seasons.
Only eight of the 18 10-plus sack seasons have reached the 11.5 level where Mathis currently resides, and his seven-game pace is blazing a franchise record. Mathis eclipsed his own record of 12 games in 2005 to reach 11.5 this year.
COLTS TOP SACK SEASONAL LEADERS
Games to reach 11.5
"The second year in (this defense), he's much more comfortable. It was a huge transition a year ago for him, going from a 4-3 end to a stand-up outside linebacker," said Pagano, who has Mathis in the 'rush' role manned by Freeney in 2012. "He's been doing great things for his entire career, so we're not surprised that he's putting the numbers up that he is."
When Mathis sacked Peyton Manning last week, he upped his career total to 52 opposing quarterbacks taken down.
Repetition against division teams has yielded Mathis' three most-sacked opponents – Houston (15.5), Jacksonville (12.5) and Tennessee (6.0).
"I'm not (surprised) because I just know for years how difficult it was," said Gary Kubiak. "A lot of attention was paid to Dwight, but I can promise you in my time in Denver and Houston, they've both been a problem as far as trying to get the ball gone and trying to help your tackles.
"It doesn't surprise me. I think he's played at an extremely high level throughout his career."
Tony Dungy has said he never has been more proud of a draft pick than he is of Mathis. Indianapolis shipped a fourth-round 2004 pick to Houston to grab Mathis at the 138th slot in the 2003 draft. Two of Mathis' 3.5 sacks were in the division before the Texans (prior to Kubiak's arrival) spent that pick.
Mathis has sacks against all 31 opponents. He has played on seven division titlists, two AFC champions and a Super Bowl winner.
His 110 regular-season wins rank ninth among 14 Colts players ever to reach triple-digit wins. The player one spot ahead? Freeney, at 110 wins.
"The guy is just a pro," said Pagano, "takes care of himself, and he works at his craft. (Colts fans have) seen it longer than I've seen it up close and personal.
"When you take care of yourself and work year-round like he does, you're able to do the things he's doing right now and being as productive as he is this far into his career."
COLTS PLAYER-OF-THE-MONTH WINNERS – 4-Manning; 3-Freeney, Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James, Mathis, Mike Vanderjagt; 2-Hunter Smith; 1-Cary Blanchard, Eric Dickerson, Jim Harbaugh.
PRACTICE REPORT – Did not participate: CB-Josh Gordy (groin), S-Delano Howell (neck), LB-Cam Johnson (knee); CB-Greg Toler (groin); Limited Participation: Darrius Heyward-Bey (hamstring); Full Participation: C-Samson Satele (knee), LB-Bjoern Werner (foot).
Heyward-Bey was a Thursday addition to the report after practicing fully on Wednesday.