By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. — Robert Mathis' first move was to his right, just to see if left tackle Anthony Castonzo would bite.
The third-year offensive lineman had to respect the veteran's speed rush, even though there's a seven-year age difference, and he dove to the outside.
At that moment, Mathis knew he had won.
The 32-year-old outside linebacker cut back to his left in an instant, ducking under a last-ditch effort by Castonzo to get in his way. For a moment, it seemed as though Mathis was destined to wind up face first in the grass.
But he somehow hovered just above the ground, like a bird of prey soaring inches above the water, and emerged on the other side. If the tackling dummy representing the quarterback in the backfield had been a real person, he might have been seeking alternative employment.
It might have been the most athletic play made by any member of the Indianapolis Colts during this year's training camp. And it really should come as no surprise it came from the team's stalwart defensive leader.
"That was something I came up with like nine, 10 years ago when I was a young pup," Mathis said Thursday at Anderson University. "I thought I would just have a little fun, show them that the old man's still got it."
It looked as though even Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas couldn't have stopped the move the way Mathis unleashed it Wednesday. And the veteran said it's a trick he's pulled out a few times with some success in practice.
He tried it once in a game against the Tennessee Titans years ago and got a quarterback pressure. But it's something he saves primarily for special occasions.
The Colts are hoping to see a lot of successful moves from Mathis this year. He's the only proven pass rusher on the roster, and opponents are sure to put special emphasis on him in their game plans.
"That's kind of the anticipation," he said, "but, hey, it comes with the territory, right?"
After 10 years of lining up on the opposite side of Dwight Freeney, Mathis likely will start the season across from free-agent addition Erik Walden. Indianapolis also drafted former Florida State star Bjoern Werner in the first round to learn from Mathis and aid the pass rush on third down.
A beefed-up defensive line is expected to help collapse the pocket and keep blockers off the linebackers, but it's unclear where consistent pressure will come from if not from Mathis.
"The guys they brought in, they brought them in for a reason," Mathis said. "You have to trust in it, trust that he's going to get the job done. Nobody is trying to replace anybody, just trying to come in and just do what you are brought in for."
The first team defense spent little time on the field in the preseason opener against Buffalo. The Colts allowed two big runs by C.J. Spiller on the first two plays then forced a punt on the first possession. The Bills' second drive ended very early when Spiller couldn't tuck away a handoff and the fumble was recovered by nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin.
Indianapolis led 13-6 midway through the second quarter, but Buffalo outscored the Colts' reserves 38-7 the rest of the way.
"Unfortunately they came out with a little bit more sense of urgency than we did," Mathis said. "We are working on that, and we are going to right the ship. I've been around 11 years and preseason is about seeing who can play, who can play together as a unit. It's kind of a crawl, walk, run kind of deal. Every week you get better and just put it together as one unit."
Mathis expects the Colts to play better this week against the New York Giants. And he has high hopes for the defense overall in its second season under coordinator Greg Manusky.
Injuries have kept the unit from practicing together as much during training camp as the players would prefer. But Mathis has seen enough to predict big things on the horizon.
"We feel like we're gelling as a unit," he said. "Unfortunately, a lot of injuries and so we're waiting to get a lot of guys back. But, for the most part, we feel like we're coming together, and we're going to make a lot of people proud of us."