All offseason, we wondered how the switch from a base 4-3 front on defense to a kinda-sorta base 3-4 front would affect Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney. For the entirety of their NFL careers (11 years for Freeney, 10 for Mathis), the two All-Pros had played at the defensive end position.
Hand on the ground. Rush up the field. Meet at the quarterback.
Seeing Freeney or Mathis drop into coverage was about as likely a sight as former Colts (and current Broncos) QB Peyton Manning running the Wildcat. However, with Chuck Pagano and Greg Manusky installing a "hybrid" 3-4 defense scheme this year, using multiple fronts and alignments, it required the two star defensive players to switch from defensive end to outside linebacker.
For those familiar with Pagano's work in Baltimore, Mathis plays the Jarret Johnson role while Freeney dresses up as Terrell Suggs. Similar concepts are used in New York by Jets head coach Rex Ryan, another former Baltimore defensive disciple. Mathis is Bart Scott (or Bryan Thomas). Freeney is Calvin Pace.
However, the problem is neither Freeney or Mathis have been able to stay healthy this season, and fans have had few opportunities to see them on the field together.
Freeney has dealt with an ankle injury since Week One against the Bears. Mathis has a knee injury, sustained in the second half of the Colts' thrilling come-from-behind win over the Packers in Week Four; a win that has sparked Indy's improbable 6-3 record to this point.
This Sunday, the 6-3 Colts travel to Foxbourgh to face the 6-3 Patriots, and for the first time in quite a while, Mathis and Freeney will both start. Together again, and (reasonably) healthy for the first time in nearly ten weeks.
With Pat Angerer having recently returned from a training camp knee injury, and with Josh Chapman getting activated after spending much of the season on P.U.P., getting both of Freeney and Mathis healthy provides the Colts with their healthiest front at any point of the season. If not for the injuries to Vontae Davis and Jerraud Powers, this Sunday would be the healthiest the defense, as a whole, has been all season.
Good timing. The Patriots game will be the closest "playoff-style" contest this young Colts team has played thus far this season. Bruce Arians touched on that at his Wednesday presser:
We felt we had a playoff game at home against Miami. Now this will be our first playoff atmosphere for us on the road.
For the Colts to have any chance against the Patriots, pressure on Tom Brady will be critical. Having Freeney, Mathis, and Angerer available will help tremendously. Both Freeney and Mathis had full participation in practice on Wednesday.