By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
There was a degree of concern entering the season as to whether Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis would be the same player without longtime running mate Dwight Freeney beside him.
And through the first four games, he hasn't. He's been even better.
With 7.5 sacks, Mathis is tied for the NFL lead with Kansas City's Justin Houston. His total is the best start of his career and the most by a Colts defender through four games since 1982. In fact, no Indianpolis pass rusher has topped Mathis' current sack total through a season's first five games.
With one more sack today against the Seattle Seahawks, Mathis would become the 30th player in NFL history with 100 career sacks. And he'd pull another step closer to Freeney's franchise record of 107.5.
"Just try to keep adding on," Mathis said. "It means you're doing your job because they're keeping you around for some reason."
The job description will get a bit more difficult with Russell Wilson in town today.
The Seahawks' second-year quarterback has the speed to strain defenses with his legs in a similar fashion to San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and Washington's Robert Griffin III. But Wilson prefers not to run.
He always keeps his eyes downfield, looking for a receiver, and he uses his scrambles as often to keep a passing play alive as he does to become a runner.
"That means you have to pick your poison," Mathis said. "Ultimately, you have to do your job. It takes everybody to keep him contained. You don't know who is more of a threat, him or (running back) Marshawn Lynch back there in the backfield. We have our job cut out for us, but we feel we're up to it."
The going isn't likely to be easy for Seattle either. Starting left tackle Russell Okung is on the injured reserve-designated to return list and won't play against Indianapolis. Right tackle Breno Giacomini also won't play after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his knee. And center Max Unger is questionable with an ankle injury.
And Wilson is well aware of the pressure Mathis can provide even against healthy offensive lines.
"We definitely have to know where he is," Wilson said. "He's a guy that can really play and get to the quarterback and make a lot of things happen. He's got a lot of talent, a lot of speed. And he's powerful, too, coming around the edge. He's got it all."
Mathis has thrived this season in a far more familiar role.
When head coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky installed a hybrid 3-4 scheme last season, Mathis was moved to the strongside linebacker position. That gave him more responsibility in stopping the run and called for him to drop back into pass coverage for the first time in his career.
He fought through the learning process — as well as some nagging injuries — and recorded a team-high eight sacks in 12 games.
But, with Freeney's departure, Mathis has moved to the rush linebacker spot this year. That position is much more like the defensive end role he played for his first nine seasons in the NFL, and he's quickly returned to form.
"Last year, he was in a tough spot because he was dropping more than he was rushing," Manusky said. "He did a great job of doing it, got his first pick I remember in Detroit. But from the standpoint of him rushing more, yeah, that's what he is. He's the guy that can come off the edge and beat tackles in a one-on-one situation, and that's what he's beend doing. We gamed him up a couple of times, but for the most part he's consistently pass-rushing against tackles and beating them."
And that brings things back to this afternoon, with Mathis testing a reconfigured Seattle offensive line and attempting to chase down Wilson for his 100th career sack.
That matchup could be a key to the game.
If the Colts can limit Lynch in the running game the way they did San Francisco's Frank Gore and Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew in the past two weeks, the Seahawks' chances of winning could come down to Wilson's ability to make plays.
If Mathis can contain Wilson, and bring him to the ground a time or two behind the line of scrimmage, the Colts' chances for victory improve.
And, of course, the longtime fan favorite could add another milestone to his career resume in front of the home crowd.
"First sack was here," Mathis said. "Hopefully, you just try to keep it going and give the fans something to appreciate."