Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis were both voted to the Pro Bowl in 2008, and for good reason. Aside from the fact that they were involved in most of the game-altering plays for the Colts on defense during the last season, they finished second and third among AFC defensive ends in sacks.
Their combined 22 sacks were best among defensive end duos in the NFL last year, and they fell short of only DeMarcus Ware and Bradie James of Dallas and James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley of Pittsburgh of becoming the most productive sack tandem in the league.
The rest of the Colts haven't gotten much pressure on the quarterback
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Together, they accounted for 22 of the 30 total sacks that the Indianapolis defense totaled in 2008, for a staggering 73.3 percent of total sacks.
They were the lifeblood of the Colts pass rush last season. The ability of the Colts to pressure the quarterback rested almost solely on the very capable shoulders of Freeney and Mathis.
That begs the question: Are they too good?
Given the fact that there were nine other defensive linemen on the roster and 21 other active defensive players on game day, the fact that those 21 guys combined for eight sacks in 16 games is troubling to say the least.
Eric Foster started 11 games and did not record a sack. Although he was primarily in the game to stuff the run and not get to the quarterback, fellow defensive tackle Darrell Reid had two sacks in limited action, with no starts. Keyunta Dawson, another part-time starter, also had no sacks.
That means that defensive linemen accounted for all 30 sacks that Indianapolis had in 2008 and, more to the point, six players accounted for every sack that the Colts defense registered last season, with Mathis and Freeney doing the bulk of the heavy lifting, and the other 15 regular players on defense getting shut out.
That is unacceptable and is one of the primary reasons that Ron Meeks is no longer the defensive coordinator.
Dating back to 2004 — when Mathis started seeing significant playing time with Freeney — and taking out 2007, when Freeney was hurt, Freeney and Mathis being primarily responsible for taking down the quarterback is actually a trend and not a 2008 aberration.
Here are the numbers for 2004, 2005, and 2006:
- 2004: Mathis and Freeney: 26 sacks. Team: 45 sacks. That is a percentage of 57.7 percent.
- 2005: Mathis and Freeney: 23 sacks. Team: 46 sacks. That is a percentage of 50 percent.
- 2006: Mathis and Freeney: 16 sacks. Team: 25 sacks. That is a percentage of 64 percent.
There are two trends at work here:
- When Freeney and Mathis account for a smaller percentage of total sacks, the number of sacks rises dramatically.
- When the percentage drops, Freeney and Mathis are actually more productive individually, having combined for more sacks in 2004 and 2005 than they combined for in 2008.
Therefore, when the focus is taken away from the talented duo, the defense as a whole is more productive and Freeney and Mathis are more productive as well.
This holds true in Pittsburgh and Dallas — the two tandems that beat Freeney and Mathis in terms of sack stats in 2008 — as Harrison and Woodley accounted for 53.9 percent of Pittsburgh's 51 sacks and Ware and James had only 47.4 percent of Dallas' 59 sacks.
The number one and number two sack duos in the NFL also happened to play for the number one and number two sacking defenses. As offenses tried to take away Harrison and Woodley or James and Ware, other players on the defense stepped up and got to the quarterback.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room: Now that Reid is with the Denver Broncos, where does the pressure come from for the Colts in 2009 if not from Freeney and Mathis?
Johnson and Howard were inactive, injured, or ineffective for most of 2008. With another year under their belts, they should be able to contribute to the pass rush in a significant way.
If Foster starts 11 games at nose tackle in 2009, something has gone seriously wrong. Ed Johnson at least had a sack for the 2007 season. Fili Moala has the ability and aptitude to get to the quarterback. When the team was more productive in the sack department in 2004 and 2005, Brock had 6.5 sacks in each of those seasons.
New defensive coordinator Larry Coyer has shown a tendency to blitz much more frequently than did Meeks. That means Colts fans will get to see what Philip Wheeler brings to the table in terms of his pass-rushing ability.
That means Bob Sanders, who had four sacks in 2007 in limited opportunities, will get his shots at the quarterback. Tyjuan Hagler, Freddy Keiaho, and Gary Brackett have 3.5 sacks between them for their careers, so it is unlikely that they will see many opportunities. Clint Session has some pass rushing upside, but has yet to get his shot. The same is true of Wheeler.
Ultimately, Freeney and Mathis should not — and cannot — be a two man show if Indianapolis is to be successful at pressuring the quarterback in 2009.
With the addition of Coyer and a new attitude on defense, though, Colts fans have cause to hope that the defense can find their way back to the glory days of 2004 and 2005.
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