Cleveland at Colts
Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium
TV: WANE, Channel 15
Radio: WOWO, 1190-AM
For more on the Colts, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1.
INDIANAPOLIS – The bookends are hurting. Robert Mathis has a sprained knee that will keep him out another week. Dwight Freeney hobbles on a sore ankle. The only people happy are opposing quarterbacks.
This was bound to be a transition year for Mathis and Freeney, switching from a 4-3 style defense to a 3-4, playing more outside linebacker, adding pass coverage responsibilities.
After years of dominance as the Indianapolis Colts' quarterback-devouring defensive ends, the two were thrown into reinvention. Unfortunately, they haven't been able to be healthy together since the opening series of the season.
The uncertainty of the once-dynamic duo makes an expected win over the Cleveland Browns at home Sunday much less of a certainty.
“It really boils down to details and doing your job,” Mathis said. “It doesn't matter who's in there.”
That's a team-oriented comment, a reflection on Mathis' supportive approach, and worth admiring. But there's no denying that the players who must step up in the absence of Mathis and Freeney – Jerry Hughes and Justin Hickman – are not Pro Bowl-caliber players.
“Whoever's out there has to do their jobs,” Mathis said. “Everybody is here because they are special in some way. If you are on the field, you have to do your job, whether it's pass rushing, defending passes or throwing passes. You just have to get the job done.”
The assignment of disrupting quaterbacks – this week it's Browns rookie Brandon Weeden – is much easier when a healthy Mathis and Freeney are on the field. They are the Colts' all-time career leaders in sacks (Freeney 103.5, Mathis 88.5). They rank No.1 and No.2 in the NFL in forced fumbles over the last 10 years (Freeney 43, Mathis 38).
They have been terrors on third down in their career. Freeney has recorded 42 of his career sacks on third down, Mathis 41.5.
Yet can the Browns be too afraid this week, with Mathis questionable to play and Freeney looking like a man with one and a half ankles? Defensive end Cory Redding and tackle Fili Moala are also hurt.
“Obviously, it's going to be tough,” Freeney said. “Missing Robert, missing Cory, missing Fili, it's going to be a tough situation for us. Like I've always said, 'That's why there's 53 guys. That's why there's backups.' Sometimes they are going to have to step up and make a play.”
Colts interim coach Bruce Arians said the pass rush is important, although the Colts must find a way to slow down Browns running back Trent Richardson first. Given Indianapolis surrendered two and a half football fields of rushing to the Jets, that's a huge task.
Yet a team dominating, as the Jets did over the Colts, without a significant passing attack goes against the grain of offensive development in the NFL. The Browns are going to pass at some point, and the Colts must be able to disrupt Weeden. Even though he is older, he's still a rookie. Rookies get rattled if the heat is turned up high enough.
So how do the Colts turn up the heat without the carefree bookends of Mathis and Freeney?
“The rest of the guys,” Arians said. “You either have to create pass rush (with) Jerry, the inside pressure or blitz them. First of all, you've got to stop the run or you're never going to get to that situation. So, we've got to stop the run and then apply pressure, whether it be three, four, five, you can apply pressure with good coverage and just great effort.”
Hughes has improved. He had nowhere to go but up after failing to impress most of his time in Indianapolis. He had seven solo tackles and a sack against the Jets. Hickman is still raw, capable of strong plays but not yet established as an NFL player.
To be frank, Freeney's not himself, either, even though he says it's “100 percent” certain that he will be on the field. By the end of the Jets game, he was noticeable limping.
“With the high ankle, it just hangs around,” Freeney said. “You don't know when it's going to get to 100 percent. I don't know if it ever is until maybe, who knows, Week 12, 13, 14, whenever. You have to go out there and fight. That's pretty much what I've been doing my whole career. Sometimes I'm not really 100 percent but I just have to get back out there because the team needs me.”
Mathis has apparently healed quicker than expected from his knee sprain, which he suffered in the win over the Packers two weeks ago. The Colts said he'd be out two to three weeks, although Mathis said this week the diagnosis was three to four weeks.
Mathis did not participate in practice Wednesday or Thursday. He was ruled out Friday.
Since he can't play, he'll be on the sidelines encouraging and helping Hughes, Hickman and others.
“My player's hat is a little bigger than my coach's hat,” Mathis said. “But I can help a lot with my experience.”
The Colts need Mathis' and Freeney's help on the field. Unfortunately, the Colts' needs and the bookends' health are not on the same page.