Indianapolis outside linebacker Robert Mathis busted out of the shadows this season.
The departure of perennial sack leader Dwight Freeney could have exposed Mathis as just another pass rusher who benefited from the attention teams paid to Freeney.
Instead, Mathis produced a season that has made him a leading candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Mathis, 32, led the NFL with 19.5 sacks and shattered Freeney’s single-season club record of 16. And with 111.0 career sacks, he also surpassed Freeney’s franchise record 107.5.
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All it took was a move from the defensive left side to the right side vacated by Freeney.
“Rush backer is awesome,” Mathis said of being in the quarterback’s blind spot. “It’s the first time in 11 years to be put in that position.
“It maximizes my skill set. Also, the guys in coverage ... we have great defensive backs … and the defensive line does a great job of helping me out.”
The Chiefs saw firsthand what kind of havoc Mathis can create. In the Colts’ 23-7 victory at Arrowhead on Dec. 22, Mathis not only sacked Alex Smith once, but his hit on Smith caused a pass to flutter into the arms of Indianapolis linebacker Jerrell Freeman for an interception.
“Not many people have found a way to stop him,” Smith said of Mathis, who has recorded an NFL-record 42 sacks/forced fumbles in his career. “Nineteen and a half sacks … that’s a lot of sacks, and a lot of them (13) have come at home.
“It will be on all of us … certainly me included … with movement within the pocket, being sound with the ball in the pocket, making good decisions.”
While Freeney was known for his signature spin move, Mathis brings a wide repertoire of ways to get to the quarterback.
“He’s got a bull rush … spin moves, speed rush ...he can pretty much do it all,” said Chiefs offensive tackle Donald Stephenson. “With him, it’s a game within a game.
“He sets up his moves (by) certain quarters, I believe. He might hit you with one move the whole first half, and he sets you up with a different move in the second half.”
Mathis, who also caused a fumble in the Colts’ win at Arrowhead, is making sure the victory over the Chiefs has not lulled his teammates into a false sense of security.
All he had to do is point out what happened to the Colts in 2005.
The Colts beat Pittsburgh 26-7 in a Monday night game in Indianapolis, and six weeks later, the Steelers — as a No. 6 seed — returned to Indianapolis and upset the Colts 21-18 en route to a Super Bowl title.
“We were a one-and-done team,” Mathis said, “and that was arguably the best team we had that year since I’ve been here.
“So don’t fall for the banana in the tailpipe. The (Chiefs) are coming to play.”
Indianapolis bounced back from that 2005 disappointment and won the Super Bowl. But that was with Tony Dungy as head coach and Peyton Manning at quarterback.
Mathis, selected to his sixth straight Pro Bowl, is one of just four players remaining from the Super Bowl XLI champions, joining safety Antoine Bethea, kicker Adam Vinatieri and injured wide receiver Reggie Wayne.
So he’s taken pride in the club’s winning the AFC South this year and reaching the playoffs in both seasons since Chuck Pagano took over as coach and Andrew Luck replaced Manning.
“We were left for dead two years ago, people saying we couldn’t do this or we couldn’t do that, it was impossible,” said Mathis. “It’s amazing how we’ve made that leap and that transition in two years’ time. To be able to go from 2-14 to 11-5 and 11-5 and to be in a position to make some noise in the postseason is tremendous.
“We want to win a Super Bowl. Point blank. Period. Getting to the playoffs is an accomplishment, but that’s not what we signed up for. We signed up for New York, so that’s our goal. That’s our only goal.”