Is Mathis Ready to Return to Form?

It has been three years since Rashean Mathis was able to play a full 16-game season for the Jacksonville Jaguars. The last two seasons, when Mathis missed two games in 2007 and four games last year, also happen to be his two lowest years for interceptions since his rookie season with the club in 2003.

Is it a direct correlation between injuries and interceptions? Mathis thinks it could be.

"Not to talk about the past because the past is the past, but a lot of that (injuries) were overlooked with our lack of success (last season). Staying healthy is the key in any league," Mathis said.

Mathis endured a sprained medial collateral ligament in the first half of the Houston game last season. He missed the second half as well as the Jaguars' final four games of the season, a span in which the team won just once in that five-week period.

When the Jaguars wrapped up their first week of non-contact, organized team activities last week, Mathis walked off the field showing no signs of the injury that hampered him a year ago.

"I'm fully recovered. I've been out there running full speed. All that is behind me. I don't even think about it. I'm not wearing a knee brace or anything," he said.

And that brings a smile to Jaguars coaches, especially head man Jack Del Rio, who knows he needs a healthy Mathis in order for the defense to make a better showing than what the defensive unit displayed a year ago. With virtually no pass rush on opposing quarterbacks, it put extra pressure on the secondary to cover receivers longer than normal.

Rashean Mathis (Phil Coale/AP)
But defenders can only do so much and stay with their man so long before he breaks off the pattern and starts improvising. That happened on numerous occasions a year ago and Jaguars defenders could not keep up. That's why it's so important for the team to have a healthy Mathis roaming throughout the secondary.

In his seventh season following his second-round selection in the 2003 draft, Mathis is a team leader on and off the field. He played his high school ball in Jacksonville and went to college at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, an 80-mile jaunt south of the city. Returning to his home roots, he has become one of the team's most popular players with fans, and Del Rio.

"I think Rashean is a great player. I think he's capable of being even better than what we've seen thus far," Del Rio said. "From day one he was a mature young man. He came in here very mature. He continues to be that guy for us.

"He's got elite ball skills. If you make a mistake in his area, he's going to catch it and probably score a touchdown with it. So I think he is a special player. We need our guys like Rashean that are really good players, need them to have great years."

Mathis is the team's career interception leader with 25 and set the single-season record with eight in 2006, the last year he played a full 16-game season. The two years before that he picked off five passes in both seasons. But that combined effort of 18 picks was followed by just one theft in 2007 and four a year ago.

With Mathis always assigned to the opposing team's top receiver, he knows plenty of passes will come his way. He'll need to return to his banner years between 2004-06 in order for the Jaguars' secondary to be an improved group over what it was a year ago. And the only way to do that is to stay healthy for all 16 games in 2009.

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