Colts defensive end Robert Mathis is having fun again. He’s smiling, joking, taking pride in his big game against Seattle and the recent improvement he and his teammates have made.
It’s a stark contrast to two weeks ago when an exhausted Mathis had to answer questions about Indianapolis’ defensive debacle at Miami — and that was a win for the Colts. Mathis didn’t hide then, and he’s not hiding now.
“We were embarrassed, basically,” Mathis said Monday. “Everybody had to be accountable. We felt like we had lost that game even though we won.”
The Colts (4-0) took their licks, learned their lessons, went back to work and now look like a rebuilt defense.
Over the last two weeks, the Colts have put quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Seneca Wallace under extreme duress. They limited Arizona and Seattle to a combined 73 yards rushing and only 27 points — 14 coming in the last three minutes of Sunday’s 34-17 victory over the Seahawks.
The new Indy defense is using blitz packages to help Mathis and Dwight Freeney draw more one-on-one blocking matchups, a predicament for opponents that appears as one-sided on tape as it does in the stat books.
Freeney and Mathis already have five sacks each, nearly half of their combined total from last season when Mathis finished with 11 1/2, Freeney had 10 1/2 and both went to the Pro Bowl. They’ve forced four fumbles and when they’re not catching quarterbacks they’re still forcing them into poor decisions, hurried throws or inaccurate passes.
Opponents just can’t keep up with it.
“They’re still trying to (double team), but they can’t do it like they used to,” Freeney said. “They have to be more creative because we’re doing different things now. They can’t just double me and double Robert, it’s a little more mano-a-mano.”
And a clear mismatch in favor of the Colts.
The rest of the defense is showing confidence, too.
Defensive tackles Ed Johnson and Antonio Johnson are keeping the massive offensive linemen off Indy’s smallish linebackers, allowing them to fill those gaping holes Miami exposed for 239 yards rushing. An influx of young talent is helping the Colts play faster, and turnovers are going the Colts’ way, too.
It’s all part of the plan new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer installed this spring.
“I think the effort is outstanding in terms of getting to the ball,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “I think we’re getting good enthusiastic play from the players who are on the field.”
The question, of course, is whether this defense can hold up for 12 more games and the playoffs?
Players believe it can.
“I hope Miami was the anomaly, it was one of those games where we were out of character,” linebacker Freddy Keiaho said. “And I’m pretty sure that games 1, 3 and 4 are what we are as a defense.”
But the Colts could get even better.
Bob Sanders, the 2007 NFL defensive player of the year, hasn’t even been on the practice field yet after having offseason knee surgery. Keiaho has started the last two games at middle linebacker for Gary Brackett, the defensive captain, who sprained his left knee late in the Miami game.
Cornerback Kelvin Hayden, who signed a $43 million contract in February, has missed the last two weeks after re-injuring his left hamstring, and last year’s other starting cornerback, Marlin Jackson, has been limited primarily to nickel and dime packages as he comes back from two surgeries on his right knee.
“It kind of bodes well for us, but it’s something that’s been the case around here for a long time,” Caldwell said of the injuries. “We don’t fret about the fact that this guy is missing and we expect whoever goes in there to do the job. Then when the other person does return, we end up with some pretty good depth.”
And a lot more fun.
“What makes it fun is success,” Freeney said. “That’s what’s going on right now around here. You build off that momentum and everything snowballs.”
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