Freeney, Mathis Made Fifth, Second Pro Bowls, Respectively, in 2009
INDIANAPOLIS – A few things changed for the Colts' defensive ends in 2009.
It was hardly the only position at which things were a bit different for the Colts' defense this past season. But with the arrival of defensive coordinator Larry Coyer, Colts ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney – long two of the NFL's best players at their position – had a few new roles.
At times, Mathis said late last season, they could drop in coverage.
At times, he said, the ends could play in a bit of a different position – at linebacker, for example.
"This defense is a lot more attacking," Mathis said. "We blitz a little more and have different coverages. It is more of an attacking (style). We kind of like it. It is fun.
"Everybody gets a piece of the action."
But this much was true about the Colts' ends, too:
Yes, there were a few tweaks and there was a bit of difference, but even in Coyer's more blitz-oriented, slightly more-complicated system, one very imant thing remained the same.
Freeney and Mathis still rushed the passer.
And they still did it on a level at or above any defensive end tandem in the NFL.
Freeney, the Colts' all-time career sacks leader, registered 13.5 sacks this past season and had 20 pressures, making the Pro Bowl for a second consecutive season and a fifth time in eight NFL seasons. He also forced a fumble, to bring his career total in the category to 36.
Mathis, who is second on the team's all-time sacks list, registered 9.5 sacks and a team-high 23 pressures this past season. He made his second consecutive Pro Bowl and also forced five fumbles to bring his career total in the category to 35.
"They are guys who do a great job of thwarting our opponent in terms of both run and pass," Caldwell said last year. "They create a lot of problems for teams and create a lot of turnovers. At some point in time, when teams feel like they've got to make a move and drop back and throw the ball, they have to be concerned with those two guys.
"You can't double them both, necessarily. If you leave one alone, he's typically going to give you some problems."
And while the Colts' ends typically are measured by their sacks numbers, Caldwell said this past season that wasn't always an accurate gauge of their effectiveness. Even on occasions when they didn't reach the quarterback, Caldwell said their presence influenced games.
"They are doing some other things besides getting the glorious sacks," Caldwell told ESPN.com late in the season. "They are still defending the run. They are still taking care of their assignments, in terms of their gap control. Sometimes, teams come out with a little different sort of a focus. Don't think they don't plan to get that ball out of their hands quickly.
"Three-step drop, we see quite a bit of that, and the reason being because of those two guys on the end. Now that helps us overall, even though it might not show up on the stat sheet. But when a guy is going back and they're throwing quick, short passes, that means there are very few things going deep over our head or deep in the seams because they're a little nervous.
"The other thing it does is that they (opponents) end up keeping extra people in to take care of those guys. When they do that, we have fewer receivers to defend."
Coyer, the Denver Broncos' defensive coordinator from 2003-2006 who spent 2007-2008 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said Freeney and Mathis both were notable because of an ability to turn natural talent into production.
Asked during Super Bowl week if Freeney ranked among the best players he had coached, Coyer – who coached defensive end Reggie White and safety Eric Turner, widely considered two of the best players at their positions in the last two decades – said Freeney compares.
"He's right there," Coyer said. "He can change a game. He has that God-given ability. He can play run or pass, it doesn't make any difference. He's equally adapted to either, and he'll be right in there with those type of athletes."
Of Mathis, Coyer said, "He works like a dog. It's hard to explain to you how hard he works, both in practice and in the game. He's unbelievable. The talent God has given him in speed and quickness separates him. He is really a hard worker. He is really something else. You watch his effort, and I'm not sure anybody in this league plays with that effort. I mean that.
"He is really exceptional. It's hard to duplicate him."
While Freeney and Mathis, as they have for much of the last decade, formed the core of the Colts' defensive end group, the unit also got contributions from a group of reserves that included some of the team's most experienced defensive players.
Raheem Brock, an eight-year veteran who signed with Colts during training camp as a rookie in 2002, moved to a reserve role this past season, starting eight of 16 games and finishing the season with 43 tackles, 3.5 sacks, four pressures and two fumble recoveries. Brock started at end from 2002-2005 and in 2008, starting at tackle in 2006 and 2007. He also played in all 16 games this past season for the sixth time in eight Colts seasons.
Keyunta Dawson, a seventh-round selection in the 2007 NFL Draft, moved to end in 2009 after starting 14 games at tackle in 2008. He started two games with 15 tackles and a quarterback pressure.
Ervin Baldwin, a second-year veteran acquired in November, registered 14 tackles and a quarterback pressure in three games.
Note: The 2010 Colts.com position-by-position series that will run during March is meant to serve as an overview of the Colts' roster as it stands entering the 2010 offseason and to provide fans a detailed look at how the position groups fared during the 2009 Super Bowl XLIV season. Any analysis included herein does not reflect the opinion of Colts management.