Sacks make the highlight reels and change games, so the defensive end that tallies the most quarterback takedowns in a given season is usually rewarded with a free trip to Hawaii. It just so happens that Mathis and Freeney finished two and three in the standings.
In addition, they authored the bulk of the game-winning and big plays for the Colts on defense last season. From the fumble that Freeney forced on Derek Anderson that Mathis returned for the game-winning touchdown to the sack that Freeney made on David Garrard to close out Jacksonville in Week 16 and all the other plays the two made throughout the course of the season, they were definitely the go-to guys for the Indianapolis defense in 2008.
Not only did they rack up sacks, but Mathis and Freeney made game-changing plays
AP Photo/David J. Phillip
They combined for 22 sacks — 11.5 by Mathis and 10.5 by Freeney — and were generally the driving force behind the pressure that was brought on opposing quarterbacks throughout the season.
Since he played on the weak side and did not have to worry about a tight end chipping him, Freeney had better numbers against the run, but both players held their own, especially considering the fact that they were primarily responsible for tackling the ball carrier on their way to the quarterback.
They accounted for 22 of the 30 total sacks the Colts defense had in 2008, for a staggering 73.3 percent of total sacks.
As far as sack duos are concerned, they placed third in the league, behind DeMarcus Ware and Bradie James of Dallas, who had 28 total (20 for Ware, eight for James), and the 27.5 sacks compiled by James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley of Pittsburgh (16 for Harrison, 11.5 for Woodley).
But, both those teams deploy the 3-4 as their base defense. As far as 4-3 tandems were concerned, Freeney and Mathis placed first, two sacks ahead of the 20 that Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka of the New York Giants had (12 for Tuck, eight for Kiwanuka) and the 19 that Jared Allen and Ray Edwards of Minnesota piled up (14 for Allen and five for Edwards).
Edwards and Allen are an interesting comparison, because they play in a Cover 2 package that is similar to the one the Colts deploy — and very similar to the defense that Larry Coyer will likely utilize in 2009.
In addition to the pressure that Edwards and Allen applied on the quarterback, linebacker Chad Greenway ended up with six sacks, as the Vikings blitzed much more liberally in their Cover 2 package than did Indianapolis.
The two other more traditional Cover 2 teams that have defensive systems that are almost identical to the one that the Colts had in 2008 are Tampa and Chicago. The end tandems in Tampa and Chicago did not come close to the production that Freeney and Mathis enjoyed last year.
Gaines Adams and Kevin Carter, the starting ends in Tampa, totaled ten sacks, with six going to Adams and four to Carter. Adams is a rising star in the league and continues to improve after a disappointing 2007 season that held big expectations for him, given that he was selected fourth overall by the Buccaneers that year.
These two players are the premiere DE duo in the NFL right now
Carter is no longer with the team, as they are trying to get younger on defense. Perhaps Tampa can close the gap in 2009, but their ends were destroyed statistically by Mathis and Freeney in 2008.
In Chicago, Adewale Ogunleye managed five sacks and Alex Brown had six, for a total of 11. That's half the number that Freeney and Mathis tallied in 2008, so it was a decisive victory for the Indianapolis rush ends.
The Bears finished fifth against the run, though, which is considerably better than the 24th overall finish for the Colts, so there was obviously less of an emphasis on the pass rush for Lovie Smith's team.
The fact remains, though, that Freeney and Mathis are now the ultimate pair of rush ends in the NFL. Osi Umenyiora of the Giants was lost before the season began, otherwise he and Tuck might have put up more of a fight, but his status for 2009 is unknown — remember that it took Freeney a while to regain his sea legs last season after he lost over half his season to injury in 2007.
Mathis was still adjusting to a starting role in 2005, neither player had a stellar 2006, and Freeney was hurt for much of 2007, so 2008 was the first taste that Colts fans had of what these two players could do working together to get to the quarterback.
With more pressure schemes and blitzing in store for 2009 now that Coyer is calling the shots, there may be a more even distribution of sacks, but there also may just be more sacks for the defense in general.
One thing is certain: Now that these two players have found their groove, the rest of the league had better look out.
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