When Colts fans learned that All-Pro outside linebacker Robert Mathis would be suspended four games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drugs policy, the jaw-dropping was audible.
The soul and leader of the defense will not start the season on the active roster.
However, Colts fans have no need to worry. While Mathis is an impact player and a major game-changer on the defensive side of the ball, he is not the only one who provides pass rush for the Colts. The defense has been tooled in order to deal with the loss in case the Mathis-less defense ever had to be run.
Last season’s additions of Erik Walden and Bjoern Werner were key cogs in the reformation of a defense that desperately needed pass-rushers. The drafting of Jonathan Newsome out of Ball State helps to shore up depth at the outside linebacker position.
Werner is the favorite to step up in Mathis’s absence. Despite a fairly disappointing rookie year, Werner will have benefited from another full off season to get used to a standing rushing position (he was a 4-3 defensive end at Florida State). He was hobbled by an ankle injury periodically throughout the year, curbing his production.
Werner managed to log 18 tackles along with 2.5 sacks and two stuffed runs. Werner never got much of a chance to prove himself behind Mathis and Walden combined with his injuries. Now, he will be thrust into a starting role opposite Walden, and large things will be expected from him.
Erik Walden has been a disappointment ever since signing with the team. After signing a gigantic contract to start the 2013 season, Walden has played less than enthusiastically as the key pass rusher across from Mathis. He logged 45 tackles along with three sacks and a forced fumble in 2013, but never had more than one sack in a game, while also posting a 5+ tackle game just once in the regular season.
Walden has always been tenacious and plays with attitude, but that attitude gets the best of him at times, seen last year with his one-game suspension for head-butting a helmet-less Delanie Walker. If Walden wants to live up to his hefty contract, the Colts will need many more than three sacks on the season; especially as the marquee pass-rusher with Mathis out.
Finally, rookie linebacker Jonathan Newsome will get a bit more than he bargained for, starting in Week 1. Newsome, brought in to be insurance behind a good rotating trio of linebackers will quickly be put into spot and edge-setting duties for the Colts. Newsome reminds me of a younger and rawer Robert Mathis; his body type is similar, and the way that he gets after the quarterback is identical to the All-Pro.
Newsome will still have a lot to learn on the NFL level in order to get past elite-caliber offensive lineman, but he could be an extremely effective OLB in the system, especially in his increased role for the first four weeks.
The first four games on the schedule aren’t exactly inviting to the Colts after losing Mathis. The biggest noticeable issue is an away prime-time game against Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos in Week 1. NFL Fans everywhere remember Mathis’s dismantling of his former teammate, spurring the Colts on to a victory against the Broncos at home last season. Now, with that key cog gone, Peyton’s Broncos look more menacing than ever.
However, Mathis was not the only defensive Colt to step up in that Week 7 win over Denver; Vontae Davis played amazing coverage against Demaryius Thomas, Walden stepped it up to force a fumble and a safety, and Antoine Bethea made some great defensive plays on the ball. If Mathis wasn’t there, the Colts still probably could have handled Peyton’s team, so why not do it in Week 1?
Mathis will be sorely missed and his return against the Ravens in Week 5 will be welcomed, but he is not everything to this defense. There is a plan in place for the All-Pro’s absence.
Let’s just hope that when he comes back, he’s the Robert Mathis that we all know and love to watch sack the quarterback.