INDIANAPOLIS –On Sunday in Chicago, Indianapolis will unveil a number of new things – 30 faces on the playing roster, 17 first-time coaches (including field leader Chuck Pagano), 15 players who will be making their first career NFL appearance and new schemes on offense, defense and special teams.
The newness is hitting home still with two of the most tenured Colts – Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis – who until this year lined up as defensive ends.
In the club's new 3-4 hybrid defense, both are linebackers. Freeney is listed as "Rush" in the alignment, while Mathis is "SLB." Both have worked throughout the spring and training camp in their new roles, and they will keep adapting up until Sunday at Chicago.
"Yes and no," said Pagano on Wednesday if Freeney and Mathis were exactly where they need to be in the scheme. "I think they're as close to being where we want them to be as could be expected throwing this new scheme at them. Again, they've done everything within their power to get the terminology down, the techniques down."
In past seasons, Freeney and Mathis were dual exhibits of destruction for an Indianapolis defense that played a Cover-2 base.
It was a system that highlighted their talents. Freeney (102.5 sacks, 43 forced fumbles, 3 fumbles recovered) and Mathis (83.5 sacks, 39 forced fumbles, 14 fumbles recovered) have produced 11 of the 17 double-digit sack seasons in Colts history. They have combined to top 20 sacks in five different seasons, and since 1970 are the only NFL end tandem from the same team to earn three consecutive Pro Bowl bids.
The new system will allow those talents to be on display as well, just from a different approach. Freeney thinks fans will notice a new overall defensive nature.
"They're going to see a very aggressive defense. It's going to be a little bit different than years past – Cover-2 shell, sit back, keep everything in front of you," said Freeney. "We're going to be a little more (into) dictating things this year. We're not going to be sitting back so much this year. We're going to be attacking."
There has been a little bit of a learning curve for Freeney since he has spent his previous 10 seasons with a hand planted on the ground in a rush position. Standing up has created a different challenge on a mental basis.
"For me, it's really just the sight line. It's seeing things from standing up, walking around. I've never had to do that before," said Freeney. "I've been pretty much stationary, boom, hand on the ground. I see everything from low-to-high. Your vision from low-to-high is condensed. It's tunnel-vision. You see the tackle. You might see the quarterback. You might see a little bit of the formation. Standing up, you see everything.
"Seeing everything can get you in trouble. You're seeing things you probably shouldn't see. Like, 'What's that receiver doing over here?' All of the sudden you're looking and the ball is hiked. For me, it's definitely going to be an adjustment, but I'm ready for it."
Freeney has been asked regularly throughout the spring and summer just where he is in the adaption process. He still is trending into where he will be eventually, and he joins Pagano's assessment on if he is "there" yet.
"We'll see. It's kind of hard to tell, to be honest with you," said Freeney. "You have a lot of the preseason stuff and they're not throwing everything at you. They're not really game-planning for you. You're only out there for a couple of series. You're not concerned, but it's (preseason exposure) not the length of the game. This is the first opportunity to see how it's really going to be."
Mathis is going through the same learning process, and Sunday will an indicator for him as well.
"I could be a little more comfortable. It's still a process," said Mathis. "I'm eager to learn, eager to play."
Indianapolis will be facing a Chicago offense that features a potent back in Matt Forte. In five seasons, Forte has 4,233 rushing yards, while amassing 6,218 scrimmage yards, fifth in Bears history and just behind Hall-of-Famer Gale Sayers. Forte ran for 123 yards and a score in the 2008 opener in Indianapolis, and he will be a priority for the club's new defense.
Jay Cutler has been productive in his time with Chicago. Cutler is averaging 225.8 passing yards per game over his three seasons with the club, the top mark in Chicago history. The Indiana native has targets like Brandon Marshall, Devin Hester and rookie Alshon Jeffery as receivers.
Freeney said Wednesday he is intrigued to see what he will learn about the unit on Sunday.
"Really just how everybody gels together in the full length of a game," said Freeney. "In preseason you have little short moments or spots, but then a guy is out and the next guy comes in. The defense is going through the good times and the bad times throughout the game. It's going to be interesting to see us fighting through adversity and coming together."
Should instincts come into play, Mathis will be ready.
"Basically, (it's), 'See the ball, hit the guy with the ball.' That's pretty much what defense is," quipped Mathis. "We just have to keep it simple and hone in on the fundamentals."
Pagano knows there will be adjustments following the game on a number of fronts, and that could include some with the former ends, too.
"Like everybody else, there will be some things that will show up come Monday when we look at the tape that we'll have to come in and correct, but I feel good about both those guys and where they're at," said Pagano.