Colts' pass-rush tandem embraces position change
ANDERSON, Ind. (AP)
Dwight Freeney thought he had seen everything in the NFL.
Then came June, when he lined up during a minicamp and realized he was covering Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne. Freeney shook his head in disbelief and Wayne just laughed.
As part of the Colts' massive offseason overhaul, defensive players are getting a crash course in how different the 3-4 alignment will be from the 4-3 system they have used for more than decade. Nobody has to learn more than Freeney and Robert Mathis, longtime defensive ends who are now listed as outside linebackers.
''I will say the first day was rough, that was in May. We've always been Cover 2 and that was all we knew,'' Freeney said. ''That first day I remember, that first package went in and it was like 15 blitzes. I'm standing up, new terminology and I had no clue what was going on. I was like a rookie but being out there, being in the fire, I learned quickly, I understood what we had to do.''
After going 2-14 and spending most of the past two seasons ranked among the league's worst defenses, the Colts were willing to do just about anything to change things.
Chuck Pagano, the former Ravens defensive coordinator brought in as head coach, quickly began implementing the aggressive system that made the Ravens so good. Freeney and Mathis seemed like perfect fits as stand-up pass rushers.
''We knew there would be a little bit of a learning curve, obviously, being in the 4-3 system for so many years and playing on the right side and playing on the left side,'' Pagano said. ''Now they have to go with calls and all of the different things, dropping into coverage a little bit. But they have done a tremendous job and they have picked it up very well.''
While players such as Aaron Kampman, Mathias Kiwanuka and Mario Williams have either balked at making the switch or struggled to make the change, Freeney and Mathis have embraced the switch for one big reason: They think it can help the Colts win immediately.
Besides, there are some enticing elements to the new defense, too. Indianapolis will be bigger on the defensive line, perhaps helping to stop the run, and Freeney and Mathis may not have to face so many obstacles getting to the quarterback, either.
''You don't know where I'm going to be,'' Freeney said with glee in his voice. ''The offensive tackle, it's not easy for him.''
Both players acknowledge it will take time to get comfortable in their new stand-up stance. Freeney said he can't recall playing linebacker since his college days.
Mathis has a little more experience in the spot. Former coach Tony Dungy experimented with Mathis in a stand-up stance early in his career - a move Mathis initially thought may end his NFL career prematurely. Eventually, he realized it was designed to get him on the field more often, but Mathis forced his way into the starting lineup as an end anyway and has been selected to four Pro Bowls.
''It's becoming more and more comfortable each day,'' Mathis said. ''I'm able to see a lot more than I did back in OTAs (offseason team activities), and I'm able to react a lot quicker to it.''
Freeney said he believes he will still spend most plays lining up on the defensive line. As a defensive end, after all, Freeney has recorded a franchise-record 102 1/2 sacks, forced the most fumbles (43) in the league since 2002 and been to seven Pro Bowls. Mathis is second in franchise history with 83 1/2 sacks and set an NFL record by opening the 2005 season with sacks in eight straight games.
Pagano's track record indicates the move can be done successfully. One of the coach's prized pupils, Terrell Suggs, was last year's defensive player of the year.
And the switch will give Indy the option of rushing Mathis and Freeney from the same side - when they're ready.
''Space, coverage, and just being up,'' Mathis said. ''I'm seeing a whole different world that I've never seen before.''
And, of course, they may wind up lining up against guys like Wayne in practice or games.
''I don't think I'll ever feel comfortable covering Reggie,'' Freeney said, drawing laughter. ''The first two steps, maybe I've got him. After that, I'm turning him over to someone else.''
NOTES: Backup linebacker A.J. Edds and offensive lineman Ben Ijalana missed the afternoon practice because of knee injuries. Pagano said both are scheduled to have MRIs. Edds hurt his left knee on Sunday, and Pagano said he thought Ijalana also hurt his left knee the same day. That would be the same knee he needed season-ending surgery on last October. ... One day after team owner and former coach Tony Dungy visited practice, the Colts had two more visitors: Former starting quarterback Jeff George and longtime backup Jim Sorgi. ... Pagano lightened the mood after being told one fan came to practice in a Steelers jersey. The former Ravens defensive coordinator said he gave the fan an Andrew Luck jersey and told the fan he had to wear the Colts jersey if he wanted to stay for practice. ... The Colts will be in full pads for the first time on Tuesday.