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INDIANAPOLIS – Suspended Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis' empty locker has a photo and an inspirational note to his teammates.
But before he left for four weeks of NFL-imposed exile, Mathis had a direct conversation with the man who'll be holding down his job, second-year outside linebacker Bjoern Werner.
As usual, Mathis was a man of few words.
“Just let loose,” Mathis told Werner, as Werner recalled the conversation.
“He's seen what I can do, how I practice, the work ethic I put in,” Werner said. “He said, 'Trust in the work you put in and you're going to be all right.' ”
Of course, things aren't quite that simple. Werner's task, in addition to trying to fill the huge "19.5 sacks" size shoes of Mathis, will be to chase down and disrupt Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning in their Sunday Night Football opener in Sports Authority Field in Mile High, Denver.
Manning remains a master of detecting and avoiding the pass rush, getting rid of the football before the hit and picking apart unsuspecting young pass rushers like Werner. Colts coach Chuck Pagano joked – or maybe it wasn't a joke – that the protection of Manning during the preseason was so perfect they never had to wash the No.18 uniform.
To say Werner has a tall task is an understatement along the lines of NBC being happy to have Manning vs. the Colts as its first prime-time game of the season.
“It's Peyton Manning,” Werner said, “but at the end of the day he's the quarterback of the opposing team. He's one of the great quarterbacks and it's awesome to play against the best. Everybody, if you're a competitor, wants to play against the best every week.”
Werner has made progress since his rookie season, when he fought a couple injuries and his impact was minimal. He had a strong preseason camp, made enough plays in the preseason games to indicate some potential, and build his confidence.
But it's one thing to perform in the off-Broadway nature of training camp and preseason games. It's another to step into the spotlight and compete against Manning and the defending AFC champions.
In the Colts' 39-33 win over Denver last season in Indianapolis, the sack/strip of Manning by Mathis played a major role in the Colts gaining momentum and building a nice lead. There's no question Manning has looked back on that game in preparing for this year's game. The fact that Mathis won't be on the field this time around can only give him an extra edge.
“Robert is a great player,” Manning said in a conference call. “But they have a lot of other great players, as well.”
For Werner, this could be the game that establishes him as a player of impact for the Colts. Or, conversely, as a poor substitute for one of the greatest pass rushers in Colts history.
“My first-team reps in the preseason gave me another level of confidence,” Werner said. “I was able to have communication with the first team. I'm ready. There are no excuses anymore. I just have to go out there and do what I can do.”
Werner, a 2013 first-round pick out of Florida State, earned a reputation in college as a force in harassing quarterbacks not only with sacks but by getting his hands on passes and batting the football down or altering its flight. The Colts would love to have some of that translate to the NFL, especially against the Broncos, because without disruption of some kind, Manning will be in position to tear the Colts' defense apart.
Remember last season's opener, when Manning threw for seven touchdowns against the Baltimore Ravens. An unbiased observer would say the Colts are not necessarily a better defense on paper than the one that Manning torched to open last season.
“(Manning) is special, we all know that,” Pagano said. “They do a great job protecting him and a great job surrounding him with a ton of talent. His work ethic, his passion for the game, he's going to study and outwork everybody in this league or try to do that. Even at 37 or 38, that's why he continues to play at such a high level.”
Pagano said it will take a combination of the Colts' pass rush and pass defense to try to slow down Manning.
“You've got to mix it up,” Pagano said. “It has to be a combination of both. It's a tall order, very difficult.”
It's probably unfair to say the Colts' pressure on Manning rides on the success of Werner. Other players such as Erik Walden, Cory Redding and Arthur Jones will need to step up, too.
But with Werner in Mathis' role, the heat falls first on him.
“In the game, you're not going to think, 'It's Peyton Manning!' all the time,” Werner said. “As a pass rusher, you just try to get back here and put the pressure on.”
That's so much easier said than done, even with a Mathis pep talk in the back of Werner's mind.