Kickoff: Colts at Cincinnati, 7 tonight
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Robert Mathis will be figuratively locked out of the Indianapolis Colts facilities at 4 p.m. Saturday. That's the roster tweak with the biggest impact this weekend.
Reporters and fans have spent the preseason analyzing Trent Richardson's every carry, the various configurations of the offensive line and the battle between Griff Whalen and Da'Rick Rogers for that one pass that doesn't go to Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Hakeem Nicks or the tight ends.
We've largely ignored the news that won't change: Robert Mathis will miss the first four games.
Mathis takes the Colts' pass rush with him, and leaves Peyton Manning, Nick Foles and other early opposing offenses smiling in delight.
It's not an exaggeration to say Mathis' absence could play a factor in the playoff race down the line. It could even keep the Colts out of the playoffs.
Without Mathis, the Colts must rely on Bjoern Werner and Erik Walden to disrupt the Broncos, Eagles, Jaguars and Titans. True, the Jaguars might disrupt themselves, but the first two and the Titans could take huge advantage. Werner looks to be improved and Walden looks to be about the same. Neither one is Mathis. And, keep in mind, Mathis will likely need some time to get his feet under him when he returns, so that could affect games against the Ravens and Texans.
Mathis hasn't played in the preseason because, well, what's the point? He's out four weeks for testing positive for a banned substance. He argued his case, saying it was related to fertility issues. The NFL listened and stood firm.
So when the Colts prepare for that season opener, Mathis won't be around.
“Zero” contact is allowed between Mathis and the Colts, coach Chuck Pagano said. He can't be in the building and those in the organization can't be in contact with him.
“Zero. Players, coaches, nobody,” Pagano said. “I got a memo, a laundry list of do's and don'ts. There's more don'ts than do's.”
The contact ban affects the Colts in two ways: First, Mathis can't be on the field, remaining sharp in practices. Secondly, he can't be in the locker room, taking ownership of this year's team as a veteran leader.
Mathis speaks softly at times, but his voice carries a ton of weight with the Colts defense. Four weeks of silence are about to commence.
“Ever since the suspension came down, we've been talking about and planning what he was going to do in that four-week period,” Pagano said. “He's going to have a routine. He's going to have a regimen as far as working out, weight room-wise, conditioning-wise. Football, he's got to continue to hone and develop his skill set.”
Mathis will take a solo "practice plan" from the Colts' coaches and work on things, but it won't be the same as being in practice. Yes, he can work on specific individual movement drills, but he can't be on the field, he can't be in the film room and he can't be part of the blood and sweat of the first fourth of the season.
Pagano expects him to jump back in for Week 5.
“He doesn't have a choice,” Pagano said. “He knows that. We don't even have to tell him that. I kid around, but he's the one that made that decision. He's got something to prove, something to give back to those guys. I'm not worried at all about how he'll be once he returns.”
Can the Colts beat the Broncos on the road without Mathis? Seems highly unlikely. His presence will be missed against the Eagles' high-octane attack, too. Denver, Philly, Jacksonville and Tennesse will all have offensive lines energized by not having to deal with Mathis.
It's not a stretch to say the Colts beat the Broncos because Mathis was able to sack Manning and strip the ball. Huge momentum shift. Even when Mathis doesn't get a sack, his presence must be accounted for by offensive lines and quarterbacks. They can hear the footsteps.
Mathis won't be around on Sept.7 when Manning takes his first snap in the season opener.
I'm guessing Manning will come out passing.