Seventh of a Position-by-Position Series on the Colts' Roster
INDIANAPOLIS - They have been keys to the Colts' defense for a half decade or more - dynamic, speedy players capable of disrupting opposing offenses.
They are the Colts' defensive ends, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
One, Freeney, is a three-time Pro Bowl selection who is entering his seventh NFL season. The other, Mathis, has led the team in sacks each of the last three seasons and is entering his sixth NFL season.
In the Colts' one-gap style of defensive line play, Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said the tandem's ability to pressure quarterbacks and make them uneasy in the pocket is critical. And Dungy said Freeney and Mathis are among the NFL's best, but he said something became apparent late this past season.
The tandem needs help, too.
"We need to have that and we kind of addressed that last year," Dungy said recently in an interview with Colts.com for this story on the team's defensive ends, the seventh of a position-by-position series that will run throughout this month.
"We got some young guys in the mix and I think we have to do that. The last couple of years, it has been Dwight, Robert and Josh Thomas. We've rotated some different guys through. We have possibly Raheem Brock doing some things out there, but we need to bring another guy into the mix."
Dungy said that need became apparent late in the season, with Freeney out the last seven games of the season with a foot injury and with Mathis also hampered with an injury.
The Colts, who ranked No. 3 in the NFL in total defense this past season, continued to play solid defense in the final weeks, Dungy said, but he said a lack of consistent pressure on the quarterback hurt late, particularly in a 28-24 playoff loss to San Diego.
The Colts, after registering 16 sacks in the first nine games of the season - games in which Freeney and Mathis each started - recorded 12 thereafter. In the final four games of the season, the final three games of the regular season and the postseason loss, Indianapolis' lone sack came in the regular-season finale, a loss to Tennessee.
Freeney, the Colts' first-round selection in the 2002 NFL Draft, has 60 sacks in six NFL seasons, registering double-digit sacks in each of his first four NFL seasons – 13 in 2002, 11 in 2003, 16 in 2004 and 11 in 2005. He recorded three and a half sacks during the first nine games in 2007, consistently getting pressure despite double teams and extra attention from tight ends and running backs.
He finished the season with 34 tackles, 29 solos, and despite missing the last seven games of the season, led the Colts with 19 quarterback pressures.
He also forced four fumbles, and had a momentum-turning sack for safety in the Colts' 29-7 victory at Jacksonville on October 22.
"He's obviously a big part of our defense," Dungy said. "We're hoping he comes back and doesn't miss a beat. That would be the best-case scenario for us, because he is such a factor. He's very much like (Colts safety and 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year) Bob Sanders, dictating the tempo for our defense and the way people have to block and attack us, so we need him.
"Our hope is he's going to be fine. All indications are that way right now."
Mathis, a fifth-round selection in 2003, has 42 sacks in five seasons, and led the team in the category in 2005 (11.5 sacks), 2006 (10.5) and 2007. He also has forced 25 fumbles in five seasons, not including the three he forced during the team's run to the Super Bowl following the 2006 season.
This past season, he started 13 regular-season games, finishing with 63 tackles, 45 solos, along with seven sacks, four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He missed the last three games of the season with a knee injury.
"Robert's one of the most productive guys on our team, play in and play out," Dungy said. "For the amount of plays he plays, he does it very quietly and he's probably not as flashy as Dwight, but he's very productive – against the odds, at his size.
"People find it hard to say, 'Well this guys is 240 pounds and he's special,' but he is.''
Thomas, who joined the Colts as an undrafted free agent in 2004, moved into the starting lineup when Freeney was injured, and started a career-high seven games. He finished the season with a sack, three passes defensed and a forced fumble.
Thomas became an unrestricted free agent following this past season and and re-signed with the team Wednesday.
Jeff Charleston, a second-year veteran who joined the Colts as a free agent before last season, also played extensively late in the season, starting three games and registering 42 tackles, 22 solos. He finished the season with a sack, two passes defensed and a forced fumble.
Brock, a starting defensive tackle the past two seasons, played defensive end for the Colts from 2002-2005, starting every game there in 2003, 2004 and 2005. He had 13 sacks in 2003-2004, and Dungy said he could play a role at end next season.
The other defensive end currently on the Colts' roster is Ben Ishola, who played collegiately at Indiana University. He spent last season with the organization as a developmental player after the Colts received his rights via the NFL International Development Practice Squad Program in July 2007.
But Dungy said no matter who gets the rush – Freeney, Mathis, a reserve on the team or a player not yet signed – getting it and getting it from the end position is critical to the Colts' success. The Colts have had it in years past, finishing among the Top 10 in the NFL in sacks in 2004 and 2005. Among the goals entering 2008, Dungy said, is maintaining the pressure.
"The defense played better" in 2007, Dungy said. "A lot of it was our young tackles (Quinn Pitcock, Ed Johnson and Keyunta Dawson) came on and grew as we got into the season, but it starts for us up front, and the ends for the last six years have been the guys delivering the majority of that rush.
"That's where it starts. We need those guys to come back and play that way. If they do, we're going to be in great shape."