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ANDERSON – Any exuberance over the play of Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Bjoern Werner should be tempered by the fact it's still only practice.
The Colts hope that Werner can make a huge jump from his rookie season and help alleviate the sense of dread over the fact Robert Mathis won't be on the field when Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning drops back to pass on opening night. Werner put in the time, and then some, showing up at the Colts complex long before it was mandatory last spring.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano loves what he sees, but it's still a long way from a regular-season atmosphere.
“He's miles ahead of where he's ever been in any point since he's been here,” Pagano said Wednesday. “He has a really good grasp of the defense, whether it's dropping in coverage, rushing the pass, setting the edge in the run game, he's doing really well. We want him to keep moving in the right direction keep getting better every single day and be the guy we need him to be.”
Werner has played significant practice time at Anderson University with the first-team defense in the Colts' preparation for the four-game suspension of Mathis to open the season. And Werner's impact has been apparent in times he's reached the vicinity of the quarterback – there's no hitting the guys in the red jerseys, of course – and in the fact Werner has been knocking down passes and disrupting things.
Werner was drafted by the Colts out of Florida State in the first round (24th overall) in 2013, and touted for his pass-altering skills and general nonstop motor. He played in 13 games last season, fought some injuries, had 13 solo tackles and 2.5 sacks. In other words, his impact a year ago was minute.
Of course, a year ago Mathis was a terror on quarterbacks, setting a Colts franchise record with 19.5 sacks. That included one notable sack/strip of Manning in the Colts' win over the Broncos. The Colts didn't need Werner to contribute much.
The Colts love the idea that Werner could step in and give them some semblance of a quality pass rush from the first snap of 2014. He seems to have reported to training camp with the mindset of doing just that. But, again, it's a controlled atmosphere at practice.
“The learning curve never stops,” Werner said. “You learn every year more and more. The more you play, the more experience you get, the more comfortable you get.”
Werner's jump in preseason play is the direct result of his offseason work, Pagano said. If there's one thing players can control out of season, it's the amount of self-driven work they put in, whether in the weight room, film room or studying the playbook.
“He put the time in and you can see the progress that he's made,” Pagano said. “None of us are surprised the jump he's made from Year 1 to Year 2.”
The question is whether Werner's training-camp play is the result of a controlled situation, with the pressure essentially nonexistent for guys who are guaranteed to be on the roster. He knows the Colts offensive tendencies from seeing them every day, even if the Colts mix up their calls.
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck gets a daily dose of Werner and likes what he sees, in terms of how Werner can help the defense.
“I think he might be the best German defensive end in the NFL,” Luck said, jokingly, a couple days ago. “He's savvy. He's got athletic sense. You see him dropping back into coverage and he covers a lot of ground. He's a big body and he has great ball instincts.”
Werner says he knows he'll need to continue to have a 24/7 learning mindset once the season arrives.
“The more you know about the offensive tackle (across from you) than he knows about you, the more edge you have going into the game,” Werner said.
The Colts need an edge from Werner, especially when Mathis is out the first four games. He's showing some promise, but practice success doesn't always guarantee a game-day delivery.