Colts defensive end Robert Mathis was just named the AFC Defensive Player of the Month for November. Mathis had 4 1/2 sacks, 16 tackles and two forced fumbles in the month. Mathis is tied with defensive end Dwight Freeney for the team lead with 9 1/2 sacks.
This week, Mathis will be matched up against David Stewart, a guy appropriately nicknamed "Big Country". When these two lined up across from each other in Week 6, Mathis was held without a sack. That's only happened in three of the Colts' eleven games this season. Will it happen again this week? Let's explore the matchup.
Stewart is starting to get the accolades he deserves. After last season, he was named second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press. This preseason, Pro Football Weekly named the 6-foot-7-inch, 320-pound tackle as the second-best right tackle in the league.
"The Titans proved how valuable Stewart was to their line by signing him to a six-year contract reportedly worth $38.9 million in June," PFW wrote. "One evaluator described the 27-year-old Stewart as a 'big, physical run blocker,' but he also has held his own in pass protection, allowing just two sacks a season ago."
Stewart is a massive presence. His girth and frame make it difficult for defensive linemen to get around the edge on him. Now, that size and frame may limit him laterally, but he does a good job using his hands and long arms to push pass rushers past the pocket. He can stun you at the point of attack with his heavy hands and uses it well to gain the initial advantage at the snap.
Stewart is a physical, hard-nosed mauler in the run game. Look for Tennessee to attempt to wear down Mathis by running right at him and having Stewart drive and finish blocks. Sometimes he finishes them too well. "He's probably our most-fined guy," offensive line coach Mike Munchak says. "He's the guy who gets the letters from FedEx every week, but he's not a dirty player. ... People just don't like that push and that shove, the way he finishes all the blocks."
How can Mathis gain an advantage? In addition to using his high-motor, athleticism, and speed off the edge, Mathis also plays with an excellent pad level. He can dip and bend with the best of them. Using that and his pad level to gain the leverage advantage and get large framed offensive tackles off balance.
Arizona's Darnell Dockett actually had three sacks last week against the Titans. Dockett did an excellent job of getting to Stewart's inside shoulder and beating him with inside moves instead of speed of the edge. Mathis' ability to work outside-in is something that he's improved dramatically in recent years. That could prove vitally important to the pass rush this week.
Another thing to watch here is the health of DE Dwight Freeney. If Freeney is out, Tennessee will make slowing Robert Mathis the focus of their pass-blocking schemes. That's what Houston tried last week, and the Texans still could not prevent Mathis from getting a sack and a key forced fumble.
Mathis has been helped by the overall aggressiveness of his defensive coordinator, as the Colts' increased blitzing has forced teams to put their tackles on an island against the Colts' talented defensive ends. If Freeney is out again, Coyer might dial up more blitzes with the goal of creating more one-on-one situations for Mathis, ideally forcing QB Vince Young into quicker decisions.
When watching the Colts' defense this week keep an eye on Gary Brackett. Is he dropping deep middle in coverage? Is he spying Vince Young in hopes of keeping the scrambling to a minimum? Is he blitzing off the snap or on a delay in hopes of forcing Vince Young into a bad decision or bad throw? Watching No. 58 will tell you a lot about what the Colts are doing schematically on Sunday.
When Brackett is blitzing, chasing down Young, or staring down Chris Johnson at the second level the man likely trying to keep Brackett off his QB or RB will be Titans veteran center Kevin Mawae. Now, Mawae might not adjust at the second level like he did in the past, but the savvy veteran knows how to play the angles and get to his block.
Mawae, a 16-year veteran, is like an on-the-field coach. He makes all the in-line calls to set up blocking schemes. If Gary Brackett is blitzing, not only will Mawae be expected to anticipate it, it will also likely be his responsibility to pick him up. That's because Brackett usually blitzes over the center and will do it usually on a slight delay after the initial blocks and reads have been made.
Brackett is the Colts best blitzing linebacker. How often will the Colts send Brackett? They have to be careful, because Brackett is also the Colts' best linebacker in coverage. And with a quarterback that has the tuck the ball and run ability of a Vince Young, its likely not wise to get your middle linebacker out of position, just in case Young takes off.
That's why I'm expecting plenty of MLB spy calls from Larry Coyer. He knows he cannot allow Vince Young to beat him with his legs. Now, Brackett and Mawae will not go against each mano-a-mano often this Sunday. But the game within the game these two play against each other, and when they actually do clash, should be fun to watch.
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