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INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis expects Bjoern Werner to grasp the 3-4 defense much quicker than Mathis did a year ago.
Mathis' reasoning is sound, if not complimentary sounding.
“Rookies are empty vessels,” Mathis said. “Vets have to de-learn everything and learn the new stuff.”
Some veterans “de-learn” things better than others. Mathis made the switch to outside linebacker under the new coaching staff last year. It didn't go quite as smoothly for the Colts' all-time sack leader Dwight Freeney. Freeney's low numbers and age led to a parting of ways when his contract expired.
Werner came to the United States from Germany originally, developed his game at a junior college and then Florida State University. But he played primarily defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, much like Mathis and Freeney.
Mathis and Freeney had both been in the league more than 10 years, so they were significantly more set in their ways.
Werner said he hopes to learn from Mathis and that Mathis will teach him some of his tricks.
“He's a fellow quarterback hater, so he's all right with me,” Mathis said. “When I came in, it was Chad Bratzke, he helped me out a lot. He was 10 years in my rookie year. I'm 11 years for Warner's first year. I'll be the old guy looking over him to guide him any way I can.”
Mathis said he expects Year 2 of the Colts' new defense to go a little smoother. Coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky switched from a 4-3 to a hybrid 3-4 last season, but the defense should look considerably more like the 3-4 of Baltimore Ravens' fame this time around.
“We know what to expect now,” Mathis said. “You can play a lot faster when you know what the coaches expect of you and you expect of the coaches. We can fly around and have fun.”
The defense will have its share of new faces, of course. The Colts signed six notable free agent defenders: outside linebackers Erik Walden and Lawrence Sidbury, defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin and Ricky Jean Francois, cornerback Greg Toler and safety LaRon Landry.
Then, in the draft, the Colts picked up Werner, defensive tackle Montori Hughes and safety John Boyett. Last week, the Colts traded outside linebacker Jerry Hughes to the Buffalo Bills for inside linebacker Kelvin Sheppard.
“We've always been an organization with homegrown guys,” Mathis said. “It's a different culture around here now (with free-agent signings). We have to take the old with the new and make it one team.”
Toler said the Colts' intentional building of a stronger defense was one of the attractive facets in deciding to sign.
“We all have one common goal, to hoist that Lombardi Trophy,” Toler said. “The offense has been pretty dominant around here and the defense has held its own. I want to come in and contribute any way I can, on special teams and getting the ball out of the air and helping create turnovers.”
Much of those turnovers, in terms of interceptions, must be generated up front. Mathis, Werner, Walden, Cory Redding and others need to bring some pressure. Mathis, Werner and Walden could all see time at outside linebacker or defensive end when the Colts show a four-man front.
“Versatility is always welcome in a defense,” Mathis said. “It's all about reaction. This defense is not a stationary defense. Guys are moving around. And the more you can confuse the offense, the better.”