Sixth of a Position-by-Position Series on the Colts' Roster
INDIANAPOLIS – When it comes to the defensive end position, Jim Caldwell said the Colts' strengths are pretty obvious.
A pair of Pro Bowl selections.
A pair of big-time pass rushers.
A pair of players teams pretty much have to account for in any given situation.
Dwight Freeney. Robert Mathis.
That, Caldwell said recently, is a strength in a variety of ways.
"They had great years," Caldwell said recently during an interview for this story on the Colts' defensive ends, the latest in a series of stories scheduled to run on Colts.com this month.
"Rarely do you have two guys like Robert and Dwight."
How rare is rare?
• They're the two leading sackers in franchise history.
• They're the first Colts defensive end duo to make the Pro Bowl in the same season since the team's 1984 move to Indianapolis.
• They accounted for 22 of the team's 30 sacks this past season.
And they not only accounted for those sacks, they did so in a season during which the Colts' defensive tackle position was hurt by early-season departure, and during a season in which opposing offenses continued a recent trend of playing in a such a way to limit the effectiveness of the two ends.
And yes, Caldwell said, teams tried such tactics.
And Mathis and Freeney were effective anyway.
"They are guys who do a great job of thwarting our opponent in terms of both run and pass," Caldwell said. "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."
Freeney, the No. 11 selection in the 2002 NFL Draft from Syracuse University, registered his fifth double-digit sack season in seven seasons, re-establishing himself as one of the NFL's dominant players at his position a year after he missed the final seven games with a serious foot injury.
The Colts' all-time sacks leader with 70.5, Freeney finished the 2008 season with 10.5 sacks, returning to the Pro Bowl for the fourth time and the first time since 2005.
Mathis, a fifth-round selection in the 2003 NFL Draft from Alabama State, led the team in sacks for a fourth consecutive season and continued to be one of the NFL's most underrated players. He has been a consistent, big-play presence in the Colts' defense since 2004, and has registered three double-digit sack seasons during that span.
The Colts' second all-time sacks leader with 53.5, Mathis finished the 2008 season with 11.5 sacks, making the Pro Bowl for the first time in his six seasons.
"You can't double them both, necessarily," Caldwell said. "If you leave one alone, he's typically going to give you some problems."
But Caldwell said the duo's effectiveness went well beyond numbers, and is best exemplified in not how many sacks Freeney and Mathis had last season but when they made them.
"There's no question about it," Caldwell said. "There were a number of teams, particularly within our conference, that their idea was they were going to run the ball and try to possess it on us, so the opunity to rush the passer was a little less frequent than what it had been. But when the opportunity did arise, those two did take advantage of it."
The two also continued to be among the NFL's best at not only getting to the opposing quarterback, but taking advantage of the situation when they got there.
Freeney, who never has had a season in which he has forced fewer than four fumbles, has 35 forced fumbles in seven NFL seasons, and had four last season. Mathis never has had a season in which he has forced fewer than three fumbles, and of his 30 career forced fumbles, five came last season.
Mathis also recovered three fumbles last season, including one in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Browns that he returned 37 yards for the game-winning points in a 10-6 November victory at Cleveland. Mathis also forced a key fourth-quarter fumble in a come-from-behind victory over Houston in early October.
And while Mathis made the Pro Bowl, he started just two games, with eight-year veteran Raheem Brock once again being one of the most reliable, consistent players on the defensive line.
Brock, who played in all 16 games, started 14 at left defensive end and one at defensive tackle, finishing the season with 54 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
"Obviously, Raheem has been a guy who has been consistent," Caldwell said. "He's been a guy who has played both inside and outside. He's kind of a nickel rusher on the inside, then outside as well at end. He does a great job because he kind of balances things. With Robert there, he gives him a chance to get a little rest and the two of those guys are a great complement to one another."
Defensive end Josh Thomas, a key reserve end the last five seasons, started three games and played in all 16 games. Thomas became an unrestricted free agent and could still return to the team.
Marcus Howard, a fifth-round selection in the 2008 NFL Draft from the University of Georgia, played sparingly as a rookie, appearing in nine games, mostly on special teams. He played extensively in the regular-season finale against Tennessee, registering his first career sack.
"He's young, with talent, and he needs reps," Caldwell said. "He needs to develop."
Caldwell said another player in the same situation as Howard is Curtis Johnson, who signed with the Colts as a free agent shortly after the 2008 NFL Draft.
Johnson, who played collegiately at Clark Atlanta University, played in seven games as a rookie. He also had a sack in the season finale against Tennessee.
"He has ability," Caldwell said of Johnson. "We like what we see. He just needs to develop as well. He's a guy who can rush the passer. He can give you some flare in the pass-rush area."