Edge protection crucial for Bears' offense

If Chicago's offense is to have success against the Colts in the regular season opener Sunday afternoon, the front five must contain Indianapolis edge rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

During his press conference this week with the Chicago media, I asked Colts head coach Chuck Pagano how Dwight Freeney – a 4-3 defensive end throughout his 10-year career – is making the transition to outside linebacker in Indianapolis' new 3-4 defense.

"He's done an outstanding job," said Pagano. "Especially for a guy that has had his hand in the dirt for so many years, and lined up basically in one spot and coming off the edge and being the player that he's been for so long. He spent the whole offseason here learning the new system, terminology, calls, things like that. He's done a little bit of this in his past, so it wasn't totally foreign to him. He's a really bright guy. He understands football; he gets football. So that transition has been smooth just because of the time that he's put in."

The Colts are transitioning both Freeney and Robert Mathis, who have 11 Pro Bowl appearances at defensive end between them, to new positions.

"I think ideally, if they had to pick, they would rather have their hand on the ground 90 percent of the snaps," said Jay Cutler. "But going to a 3-4 it's a little bit different for them. I think as defensive coordinators and their head coach being a defensive guy, they're going to be smart. They're going to put them in positions where they're going to be blitzing off the edge. They're going to limit the amount of times they put them in coverage. So I expect to see Sam and Will blitz a lot from those guys."

DE Robert Mathis
Gregory Shamus/Getty

Yet even though they'll be coming after the quarterback from different locations on the defense, they'll both still demand attention on every play. Quality pass rushers are going to get after the quarterback no matter where they line up. These two have the skills necessary to be extremely disruptive.

"They are great at what they do," said Roberto Garza. "They're great pass rushers. They're athletes that can move in space. We have to know where they are at all times and be aware of that. Our tackles have a tough duty. That's the matchup to be watching this weekend. I'm excited about those guys going out there and doing what they do."

J'Marcus Webb won the left tackle job this offseason, yet that was basically by default, as his competition, Chris Williams, was not impressive. Webb struggled against speed rushers like Mathis and Freeney last year, so this will be a great first test to see if Webb has improved. If he hasn't, don't be surprised if coordinator Mike Tice gives him the quick hook.

"Both of those guys can make plays, and both of those guys have to be accounted for," said Tice. "The fortunate thing about playing against defensive linemen today is they (come in) waves. They rotate. They're not on the field every play. So you have to be intelligent with some of the things you do and aware of where they are. And they can still rush the passer, obviously."

While Mathis and Freeney provide a major challenge for Chicago's offensive tackles, the position switch could compromise their ability in coverage. Neither player has had to cover a receiver or running back one-on-one during their careers, so the Bears will be looking to take advantage of their inexperience in space.

"I think it's going to be a little bit harder for them to get used to that, first year into a totally new defense," Kellen Davis said. "We'll go out there and hopefully take advantage of that if it is hard for them, because obviously they are very good players when they've got their hand down."

One thing is for sure, if the Bears can contain Mathis and Freeney, it'll be a long day for the Colts defense Sunday afternoon.

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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.

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