Today we're going to take a look at how incredible Robert Mathis was in 2013. Well, actually it's the 2013 Colts outside linebacker positional review, but those are pretty much the same thing. Mathis was simply tremendous this season. The more I look at it, the more impressive it is.
Playing without his counterpart Dwight Freeney for the first complete season and without any other real pass rush threat, Mathis turned in what was unquestionably the best season of his great career, leading the league with 19.5 sacks. He also recorded 59 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 1 pass deflection, and forced 8 fumbles. I named Mathis the Colts team MVP this year, signifying just how important he was to the Colts in 2013. Without him, I guarantee you the Colts don't win 11 games and they certainly don't win a playoff game. Think of the play that in your mind is the best defensive play of the season for the Colts, and I bet it involves Mathis. Two of the biggest plays off the top of my head - Mathis's strip sack of Peyton Manning and his forced fumble in the AFC wild card game vs. the Chiefs - both were Mathis. That's just the way the season went for the Colts, as Robert Mathis really carried the pass rush (nearly accounting for half of the team's sacks) and was as crucial to the team as any player was.
Outside of Mathis, however, the season was anything but impressive for the outside linebackers. Mathis really, really elevates the position and really the position grade is as good as it is almost entirely because of Mathis (who individually gets an A++). Erik Walden started 15 games at the other outside linebacker spot (the only game he didn't start was the game he was suspended for head-butting a Titans player). He recorded 45 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 pass deflections, and a forced fumble. At his outside linebacker spot, however, his primary role is to stop the run. Mathis was the rush linebacker and Walden's primary role was run stop. He actually was decent at doing so early on, but the end result was a bad rush defense that ranked 26th in the league and was completely gashed in the playoffs. Walden didn't "set the edge" well and that contributed significantly to the bad rush defense. He received a 4-year, $16 million deal last offseason and definitely did not live up to that contract and didn't help out the run defense much, which he was brought in to do.
Rookie Bjoern Werner was drafted with the Colts first overall pick to be the second pass rush option behind Mathis, but the Colts quickly learned that it wasn't going to go so well. It's hard to blame Werner as much but rather the expectations the Colts placed on him - they were expecting him to contribute significantly to the pass rush, seeing as it was terrible and Werner was the big addition for pass rusher. The fact is, however, that historically rookie pass rushers aren't great in their first season, and that was true of Werner. He missed some time due to injury which didn't help, but he improved as the season went on. He started 1 game but played in 13, making 18 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 3 pass deflections. At the beginning of the season he was terrible but toward the end of the season he was actually playing well. The Colts need Werner to keep improving, which I believe he can do, and they need him to step up in 2014 - which I also believe that he can do.
None of the other outside linebackers played much at all. Cam Johnson (who the Colts traded for early in the season from the 49ers), Andy Studebaker (who the Colts signed mid-season), and Daniel Adongo (the African rugby player turned American football player) didn't play much on defense but rather on special teams. Studebaker especially stood out on special teams, playing very well there. Adongo has a lot of physical talent and he is still very much a work in progress - it will be very interesting to keep an eye on him.
Additionally, Justin Hickman and Lawrence Sidbury spent the entire season on injured reserve. Sidbury was signed as a low-cost free agent last season to be a pass rusher, and while his contract is up this March there is a chance the Colts will bring him back - but it's uncertain. Hickman looked good in training camp and preseason before being injured in a preseason game and was placed on IR, which was a loss for the Colts since Hickman was playing well enough that it seemed that he would earn a roster spot and could contribute.
Overall, the outside linebacker positions were overwhelmingly manned by three people - Robert Mathis at the rush linebacker spot and then Erik Walden and Bjoern Werner opposite him. Mathis was phenomenal (and even that doesn't do it justice), Walden wasn't that great, and Werner wasn't either but he showed improvement. This grade is as good as it is almost entirely for Mathis, whose season was tremendous.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS GRADE: B +
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts' 2013 season by position, check out Josh Wilson's other position reviews: