AFC South: Dwight Freeney

Robert Mathis finishes 2nd in DPOY

February, 1, 2014
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What could have been an incredible day for the Indianapolis Colts didn't end the way they hoped.

Mathis
Shortly after receiver Marvin Harrison and coach Tony Dungy found out they will not be heading to the Hall of Fame this year, linebacker Robert Mathis learned he wasn’t this season’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Mathis finished second behind Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly for the award.

Kuechly led the NFC in tackles with 156, including 24 against New Orleans in Week 16.

Mathis didn’t win Defensive Player of the Year, but he still had a successful season.

He also proved the naysayers wrong who doubted that he could dominate without Dwight Freeney on the other side.

The best part about Mathis playing with the chip on his shoulder?

He had no problem saying the doubters motivated him.

Mathis led the league in sacks with 19.5 and forced fumbles with eight. He had 46.4 percent of the Colts’ sacks this season, because they only had 42 as a team. The eight forced fumbles led to 35 Colts points.

Indianapolis Colts season wrap-up

January, 15, 2014
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Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 8
Preseason Power Ranking: 10

Biggest surprise: The questions were valid. Was linebacker Robert Mathis' production a product of having sack-machine Dwight Freeney playing on the other side? Could Mathis still be an impact player without Freeney? Mathis silenced the naysayers when he led the league in sacks with 19.5, including seven strip sacks. Mathis didn't hide the fact that he wanted to quiet the doubters. What made his season even more special is that he did it without much help elsewhere, as the Colts had only 42 sacks as a team. Mathis is one of the front-runners to be the league's defensive player of the year.

Biggest disappointment: Safety LaRon Landry was supposed to have the same kind of impact Bob Sanders had when he played for the Colts. That's why general manager Ryan Grigson signed him to four-year, $24 million contract. Landry was good when he was able to come up with the big hits or touchdown-saving tackles, but it was too often that he ended up whiffing on a play. The plays on which he missed running back Jamaal Charles on a touchdown run in the regular-season game against Kansas City and New England's LeGarrette Blount on his touchdown run last weekend are two examples that quickly come to mind. It also doesn't help that Landry missed four games because of injury this season.

Biggest need: Help on both lines -- offensive and defensive -- should be at the top of Grigson's list during the offseason. The Colts are set at offensive tackle with Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus. Donald Thomas will be back to take one of the guard spots after he missed most of the season with a quad injury, but the other guard spot and center could use upgrades. The Colts need a defensive tackle who can clog the middle of the line.

Team MVP: This is a no-brainer. Quarterback Andrew Luck was mentioned as a league MVP candidate at one point in the season. The second-year quarterback overcame injuries to five key offensive starters -- including future Hall of Fame receiver Reggie Wayne -- to cut his interceptions in half, increase his completion percentage and throw the same number of touchdown passes despite 52 fewer attempts. Take Luck out of the lineup and the Colts would have won maybe six games this season.

 

From small-college player to sack leader

December, 15, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The questions surrounding Indianapolis Colts linebacker Robert Mathis' effectiveness started when his partner in crime for 10 years, Dwight Freeney, went out West to San Diego.

Can Mathis still be a dominating pass-rusher without Freeney?

How much did Freeney help Mathis become a Pro Bowl player?

Mathis started answering those questions when he became just the 30th player in league history to record at least 100 career sacks after he got to Seattle's Russell Wilson in Week 5.

[+] EnlargeRobert Mathis
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsWith this sack of Case Keenum, Robert Mathis set the single-season and career sack records for the Colts.
Then, in front of a Lucas Oil Stadium crowd, Mathis moved past Freeney in the team's record books.

Mathis became the team's all-time leader for sacks in a single season (16.5) and career (108) when he beat Houston Texans left tackle Duane Brown for a sack of quarterback Case Keenum in the third quarter of the Colts' 25-3 victory. It was only fitting that Mathis set the record with one of his trademark strip sacks.

"I enjoyed it to the utmost," Mathis said. "Never take it for granted because it is such an accomplishment. It's just still unbelievable. Just happy to have it."

Mathis needed a bounce-back game after the Cincinnati Bengals shut him down on Dec. 8. It took almost three quarters, but Mathis is too good of a player not to get involved after the Colts' defense was shutting Houston's offense down and already had intercepted two Case Keenum passes in the first half.

The Texans had the ball at their own 7-yard line when Brown kept Mathis away from Keenum for three seconds, but the Colts linebacker wasn't going to be stopped. Mathis got by Brown on the fourth second and ripped the ball out of Keenum's hands. Brown fell on the ball in the end zone. Mathis was given the ball and then acknowledged the crowd for giving him an ovation.

"Duane Brown is a very good O-tackle," Mathis said. "He's a very strong guy. Just had to stay with it and saw the quarterback roll out and was able to get to him. That was about it. Just make a play for the team."

Mathis will have to make room in his locker to put the ball next to the hundred dollar bill he has framed in there signifying his 100th sack.

Sitting at the top of the team's record books signals how far Mathis has come in his career after being told he wasn't talented enough and that he was too small to play in the NFL after coming out Alabama A&M, which was a NCAA Division I-AA school when he played there in 2003.

But Mathis has continued to prove the naysayers wrong. He did it while playing with Freeney, and now he's doing it even more without him.

"He should be, in my opinion and probably everybody else's opinion that's certainly a Colts fan and part of this organization, in the conversation someday to be in the Hall of Fame I would think," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "Doing what he's done for as long a period that he's done and the records that he has, who knows? We'll see. He's got my vote. I don't have one, but he's got it anyway."

Mathis doesn't plan on calling it quits anytime soon, so his next possible honor could be defensive player of the year.

That wouldn't be too bad for a player very few thought could give opposing quarterbacks nightmares.

"It's a bit surreal," Colts quarterback Andrew Luck said. "He's everything you could ask for in a leader, a locker room guy, in a veteran, the example he sets, his work ethic. He's one of those guys that all the great things that happen, he deserves because he puts the work in. He does go the extra mile for it."

Upon Further Review: Colts Week 14

December, 9, 2013
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CINCINNATI -- An examination of five topics from the Indianapolis Colts' loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Locked in at fourth seed: The Colts will finish with the fourth seed in the AFC playoffs barring a collapse from the third-seeded Bengals in their final three games of the season. Cincinnati’s remaining three games are at Pittsburgh and home against Minnesota and Baltimore. The Colts will play the Kansas City Chiefs in the opening weekend of the playoffs if the standings remain the same the rest of the season. The Chiefs (10-3) have a better record than the Colts (8-5), but the game would be played at Lucas Oil Stadium because Indianapolis won the AFC South. A preview of that playoff matchup takes place Dec. 22 in Kansas City.

Luck
Richardson
Shuffling line: The Colts used their fifth different starting offensive line against the Bengals. Mike McGlynn moved back into the starting lineup at guard because Jeff Linkenbach was out and Joe Reitz started for the injured Hugh Thornton at the other guard spot. The negative is that the Colts rushed for only 63 yards -- partially because they fell behind so early -- but the positive is that quarterback Andrew Luck didn’t get sacked and he passed for 326 yards and four touchdowns. Sunday was the first time that Luck threw four touchdown passes without an interception in a game. McGlynn is the likely candidate to go back to the bench once Thornton returns from his neck injury.

Waiting another week: Linebacker Robert Mathis will have to wait at least another week before passing Dwight Freeney as the team’s all-time sack leader. Mathis was nonexistent against the Bengals. He finished with only one assisted tackle. Sunday was only the fourth game this season that Mathis didn’t record a sack. He has 107 career sacks and trails Freeney by only half a sack for the team record

A factor in the backfield: Running back Trent Richardson gained only 20 yards on six carries, but he did have a part in the passing game. He tied his season high in catches with five for 68 yards. The Colts need to make Richardson a bigger part of their passing game because he excelled in that area last season with the Cleveland Browns. He finished his rookie season with 51 catches for 367 yards and a touchdown.

Struggles on third down: So much has been made about the defense’s inability to stop teams on third down, but the offense has its own problem converting on third down. The Colts were 2-of-10 on third down, which is a major reason why the Bengals had the ball 15 minutes more than them. Sunday marked the seventh time in the past eight games that the Colts finished the game converting fewer than 40 percent of their third-down attempts. They were 0-for-6 on third down in the first half against the Bengals.

Rapid Reaction: Indianapolis Colts

November, 10, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS -- A few thoughts on the Indianapolis Colts' 38-8 loss to the St. Louis Rams at Lucas Oil Stadium:

What it means: The Colts gave up a trifecta before halftime in their worst home loss under coach Chuck Pagano. The Rams scored a touchdown on defense, offense and special teams while jumping out to a very easy 38-0 lead during an embarrassing performance by Indianapolis. Rams rookie receiver Tavon Austin entered Sunday averaging 6.7 yards a catch. The Colts allowed him to have the breakout game that he needed. Austin roasted Colts cornerback Vontae Davis twice, as he finished with two catches for 138 yards. Both catches were for touchdowns. Austin also had a 98-yard punt return for a touchdown, which was helped by Sergio Brown tapping the ball to him while trying to save it from going into the end zone. And the Colts’ running game? It finished with 19 yards on 13 attempts. Andrew Luck and Matt Hasselbeck combined to throw four interceptions.

Stock watch: Colts linebacker Robert Mathis recorded two sacks -- both in the first half -- increasing his season total to 12.5. His second sack set a team record for multisack games in a single season -- six -- and multisack games in a career with 26. Dwight Freeney has the Colts’ single-season record with 16, set in 2004. Mathis has seven more games to surpass that total and increase his odds to win Defensive Player of the Year.

Playing into the fourth quarter: Luck didn’t take all the snaps for the second time in his career. Pagano pulled Luck with the Colts down 38-8 with a little less than six minutes remaining. It’s a little surprising that Pagano didn’t take his franchise player out sooner, because it was pretty obvious that the Colts weren’t going to win the game. Luck finished the afternoon 29-of-47 for 353 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. He was also sacked three times. Luck entered the game having thrown only three interceptions.

What’s next: The Colts (6-3) don’t have much time to think about this loss because they have a short turnaround between games. They travel to Nashville to take on AFC South counterpart Tennessee on Thursday.

Robert Mathis adds to successful season

October, 31, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Indianapolis Colts linebacker Robert Mathis has a hundred dollar bill framed in his locker in honor of recording his 100th career sack earlier this season. Not that he’ll necessarily do it, but Mathis might have to slide that frame over a little bit to make room for his latest honor, one that wasn’t necessary to prove he doesn’t need former Colt Dwight Freeney on the field next to him to be one of the league’s best pass-rushers.

Mathis
Mathis was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Month for October on Thursday. He had 11 tackles, 4.0 sacks, two forced fumbles and one pass defended in the month. He is also the last Colt to win the award. He did it in September 2010.

“The guy is just a pro,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “Takes care of himself and he works at his craft. When you take care of yourself and you work year round like he does, I think obviously you’re able to do the things that he’s doing right now and being as productive as he is this far into his career.”

The Player of the Month award is nice and all, but it’s time to start talking about Mathis as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He leads the league in sacks at 11.5, which is already the fifth most in a season in Colts history, to go with 31 tackles and three forced fumbles. His five multi-sack games ties for the franchise record.

“Robert’s so impressive,” Houston coach Greg Kubiak said. “I think Chuck and those guys do a great job of getting him in position to make plays and be successful. Tremendous respect for him."

Luck paving his own way in Indianapolis

October, 16, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The pressure was there for quarterback Andrew Luck. It was supposed to be there for him.

He was the No. 1 overall pick stepping in for a future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback, in a state where it's the Colts and every other sport is trying to close the gap.

[+] EnlargeT.Y. Hilton, Andrew Luck
AP Photo/Damian StrohmeyerAndrew Luck has a 15-7 record as the Colts' starting quarterback and made a playoff appearance as a rookie.
Colts fans, some still upset over Indianapolis' releasing Peyton Manning, wanted instant results despite Luck stepping into an obvious rebuilding situation.

But for some reason, Luck didn't feel the pressure of having to replace an icon in the organization, the one responsible for making the Colts a fixture in the playoffs and leading them to a Super Bowl title after the 2006 season.

Colts coach Chuck Pagano didn't talk to him about it. Neither did veteran Reggie Wayne. What they saw was a mature 22-year-old player walk into the facility on the west side of Indianapolis with the mind frame that he was ready to try to live up to the standards Manning set during his 14 years with the organization.

"We all know how Andrew is wired and how he is," Pagano said. "We never went down that road. Certainly Andrew respects the guy as much as anybody else, understood whose shoes he was filling and all those type of things, so it wasn't a matter of having any long, lengthy sit-downs about that. Andrew being Andrew, wired the way that he is, obviously to this point has handled that and handled his first year with flying colors."

What Luck has done is slowly start to remove himself from Manning's shadow. That shadow won't be officially gone until he makes the Colts a regular in the playoffs and gets the multiple Super Bowl rings owner Jim Irsay seeks.

But the Colts know they're set at the quarterback position for at least the next decade barring injury, the same way they were when they picked Manning No. 1 overall in 1998.

Luck's too good and too much of a perfectionist to go backward. He doesn't carry himself as if he's only in his second season. You would think Luck has been in the league for several years by watching how he carries himself on the field.

He has proven his ability to win in the first 22 games of his young career. Luck is 15-7 and led the Colts to the playoffs as a rookie.

"I learned that very quickly from the guys that have been around, that it's a culture of winning," Luck said. "It's something that Mr. Irsay I think created, something that Coach Pagano is a believer in. I'm glad to be a part of a team that has a culture of winning and getting to the playoffs."

It helped that Luck didn't step inside the locker room feeling as if he had to put the weight of the franchise on his shoulders. He had veterans like Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Antoine Bethea and Robert Mathis to help with the transition.

Early on, Luck did more listening than speaking. Now, it's the other way around.

"He's doing it like the first pick of the draft should do," Wayne said. "He's taking it in stride. We as his teammates are doing our best to try to make him look good. He's being Andrew. What you see is what you get. He's handled it quite well and hopefully it gets better from here."

You would think Luck's goal would be to outduel Manning on national television, on the same field Manning led the Colts to three playoff appearances.

That's not what Luck is thinking about. He'll gladly hand the ball off 50 times if that's what it takes to beat the Broncos. He'll also throw it 50 times if required. But just know, it's not about Luck vs. Manning.

It's about the Colts trying to beat the Broncos. Luck wouldn't have it any other way.

"He knows what he has to do," Pagano said. "Everybody knows what they have to do. We've got to do all the fundamental things that good football teams and good football players do."
SAN DIEGO -- Indianapolis Colts safety Antoine Bethea is in his eighth season in the NFL. He’s watched as teammates have departed during that time.

Marvin Harrison. Bob Sanders. Dwight Freeney. Jeff Saturday. Peyton Manning.

That’s why Bethea isn’t buying into the hype surrounding Manning’s return to Indianapolis with the Denver Broncos on Sunday.

“We see players come and go all the time,” Bethea told ESPN.com. “We have to go out there and just play ball. I don’t think it’s going to be weird. The media is going to make a big hoopla about him coming back to Indy.”

Manning spent 14 seasons with the Colts, leading them to two Super Bowl appearances before the team released him in 2012.

The Colts have to quickly regroup from Monday’s loss to San Diego because all eyes will be on Lucas Oil Stadium when Manning and the undefeated Denver Broncos visit in what should be one of the most watched games of the season.

Manning appears to be on his way to picking up his fifth MVP trophy. He’s passed for 2,179 yards, 22 touchdowns and only two interceptions while completing 74.2 percent of his attempts this season.

“I’m not surprised at all,” Bethea said. “He’s been playing that way his whole career. You’d be a fool to say you’re surprised. We’re really going to have to be on top of things next week. He’s a mastermind of what he does.”
INDIANAPOLIS – The Oct. 14 game at San Diego was supposed to be the start of back-to-back meetings between the Indianapolis Colts and two players who were key fixtures in the organization for a long time.

Dwight Freeney and the Chargers were to be up first, followed by Peyton Manning and Denver Broncos on Oct. 20.

Freeney
Freeney won’t face his former team, unfortunately. He is out for the rest of the season with a torn quad.

“We were all sick to see that his season was cut short by the injury,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “You can’t say enough great things about Dwight. I know we only had one season together, but when you look at what he did for this organization and this city and all those types of things and his production. He’s a great, great football player. Again, we all hated to see that his season got cut short. We don’t want to see anybody get injured, nobody on our team, nobody on our opponent’s team. You hate to see injuries, but they happen. Nothing but great things to say about Dwight.”

Colts linebacker Robert Mathis, who tormented quarterbacks opposite of Freeney for 10 seasons, recently said he knows his former teammate will bounce back from the injury and continue to be effective when he returns.

Freeney spent the first 11 seasons of his career with the Colts, totaling 107.5 sacks and 258 tackles. Like Mathis, Freeney had to adjust his game to fit Pagano’s 3-4 defensive scheme last season.

“Coming in here in our first year, the strain that changing systems put on him and Robert and just how they bought in and did everything that we asked," Pagano said. "I got nothing but fond memories, obviously, and great things to say about him."

The Colts decided not to re-sign Freeney during the offseason. He told SI.com in August that the organization didn’t even make him an offer. “I wished they would have offered me something so I could’ve retired a Colt,” Freeney told the website.

Pagano will go against somebody he knows very well in San Diego next week. His younger brother, John, is the Chargers defensive coordinator.

“Another ballgame, it’s just another ballgame,” Chuck Pagano said. “We’ve played each other before. There’s no communication this week, for obvious reasons.”

Rapid Reaction: Indianapolis Colts

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
4:27
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INDIANAPOLIS -- A few thoughts on the Indianapolis Colts' 34-28 victory against the Seattle Seahawks:

What it means: Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck and Seattle’s Russell Wilson, the two best quarterbacks in the 2012 draft, didn’t disappoint. Wilson was creative with his arm and also with his feet, giving the Colts headaches all day. But in the end, it was Luck, the best quarterback taken since Peyton Manning in 1998, who made the necessary plays to send the Seahawks to their first loss of the season. Luck shook off three straight three-and-out possessions to open the game, leading the Colts on three scoring drives in the second half to help make up for a 19-17 halftime deficit. Luck was 11-of-16 for 132 yards and a touchdown in the second half. Wilson finished with 15-of-31 for 210 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

Stock watch: Receiver T.Y. Hilton was the lucky one on the other end of Luck’s passes. The second-year receiver caught five passes for a career-high 140 yards and two touchdowns. Hilton caught a 73-yard touchdown pass from Luck in the first half, giving him four touchdowns of at least 60 yards in his short career. Only Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson has more touchdowns of at least 60 yards since 2012. He has six.

Mathis gets 100: Colts linebacker Robert Mathis became the 30th player in league history to get 100 sacks when he sacked and stripped Wilson on the final play of the first half. Mathis, who has been out to prove he can be effective without playing alongside former Colts star pass-rusher Dwight Freeney, finished with two sacks, giving him 9.5 this season.

What’s next: The Colts head out west for the second time this season when they play at San Diego on Oct. 14 in their lone Monday night game of the season.
INDIANAPOLIS – Robert Mathis’ first sack came on Sept. 14, 2003, against Tennessee at home at the RCA Dome.

Now, a little more than 10 years later, the Indianapolis Colts’ rushing linebacker can get the 100th sack of his career in front of the home crowd – this time at Lucas Oil Stadium – on Sunday when the Colts take on the undefeated Seattle Seahawks.

“Hopefully you keep it going and give the fans something to appreciate,” Mathis said.

[+] EnlargeRobert Mathis
AP Photo/Ric TapiaThe next time he takes down a QB, Robert Mathis will become the 30th player to reach 100 career sacks.
The next time he takes down a quarterback, Mathis would become the 30th player in NFL history to record 100 sacks. That’s something players such as Warren Sapp and Joey Porter never accomplished in their careers.

But go back to 2003, when the thought of reaching 100 sacks in his career was the last thing on Mathis’ mind. He simply wanted to stick on an NFL roster.

Mathis wasn’t talented enough, he was too small, he didn’t have a position, he played at a Division I-AA school. That’s all he heard from the critics.

Mathis wasn’t going to let the so-called experts keep him from getting where he wanted to be. And that’s why he’s on the brink of joining some special company.

“I tip my hat to Rob 'cause he’s one of the guys I look up to on this team,” Colts safety Antoine Bethea said. “Coming from a black college and what he’s been able to do in this league, he’s doing a hell of a job. He still plays with a chip on his shoulder. That says a lot about a guy who has made multiple Pro Bowls.”

Mathis teamed with Dwight Freeney for 10 seasons to harass quarterbacks as the bookends on the Colts' defensive line. Freeney wasn’t brought back during the offseason, leading to questions as to whether Mathis could still be effective without his partner.

Mathis didn’t try to act like he wasn’t aware of what was being said about him. He read and heard about the comments.

And so far this season Mathis has silenced the naysayers -- he's tied for the league lead in sacks with 7.5.

“That chip is still on my shoulder,” he said. “Me and Dwight, we got after the quarterbacks real good for a better part of a decade, so it’s something we did together. I guess that’s what kind of irks me a little bit. I don’t like being viewed as a beneficiary. I feel like that takes away from the grind and hard work and dedication I put in.”

Does Mathis feel he'll still have to prove himself after he gets his 100th sack?

Of course. He knows the criticism won’t stop.

“It won’t go anywhere until I’m done playing,” Mathis said. “So as long as I’m playing and I’m on the field, it’s something I have to prove.”
Rivers/LockerUSA TODAY SportsJake Locker, right, will try to keep up with Philip Rivers and the Chargers, who have scored 61 points through two games.
The San Diego Chargers are the Tennessee Titans' white whale.

The teams don’t play that frequently -- just nine times since 1993, including a wild-card playoff matchup in January 2008. The franchises have undergone all sorts of changes during that span, but one thing has remained consistent when they meet: The Chargers always win.

Bill Williamson, why do you think that is, and what are the odds it continues?

Bill Williamson: I don’t see the Chargers' history with the Titans being a factor. I know in Nashville the word "Chargers" makes fans cringe because of the history. Both teams are rebuilding and trending upward. These are two similar teams, and they will both be in the AFC conversation in the coming years.

The Titans made a lot of changes. This isn’t the team the Chargers beat 38-10 last September. What’s the biggest difference?

Paul Kuharsky: The central part of the offseason revamp was the offensive line. The Titans have three new starters on the interior with left guard Andy Levitre, center Rob Turner and right guard Chance Warmack. Turner has been shaky, however, and Warmack is a rookie who is going to take some lumps when he’s across from someone like J.J. Watt. The group hasn’t jelled yet, but the run-blocking has been pretty good.

We've seen the good Philip Rivers and the bad Philip Rivers over the years. With the new regime in place, what is your feeling on who he will be now?

Williamson: I might be the wrong person to ask, Paul. I’ve always been high on Rivers. Yes, his play sank the past two seasons and he committed 47 turnovers during that span. But it wasn’t all on him. The previous regime in San Diego let go of a lot of skill-position talent, and the offensive line was decimated by injuries. Rivers didn’t have much help. He was pressing as a result. So far under head coach Mike McCoy, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and quarterback coach Frank Reich, Rivers has looked re-energized. He has looked relaxed and confident over the first two weeks. He has shown that he is still a high-level player. Stopping him is the main challenge for the Titans.

How’s Jake Locker coming along?

Kuharsky: He made a bad throw on a crucial third-and-1 late in regulation in the loss to the Texans. The Titans have hardly turned him loose so far. But since the start of camp, he’s shown steady progress. I’m not a complete believer by any means, but I think he has a chance and I didn’t always feel that way. We still haven’t seen some aspects of the offense that should be featured for him. Maybe this week he’ll run around more and we’ll see more boots and rollouts.

I’m curious about one of the guys who will be chasing Locker. The Titans have seen a great deal of Dwight Freeney over the years. How has he fit in the defensive scheme there?

Williamson: An old foe, indeed. Freeney is in a tough spot. He was signed (and paid well) to be the Chargers’ primary edge pass-rusher after 2012 first-round pick Melvin Ingram blew out his knee in May. But at 33, Freeney is best suited as a rotational player. He has half a sack this season. He has been active and will give his best effort, but he needs help. It would be a stretch to think he can still be a premier player. But he knows the Titans, and I’m sure he will be motivated to perform well Sunday.

What can Rivers and the Chargers' offensive line expect from the Titans’ pass rush?

Kuharsky: The best guys so far haven’t been the ends. Derrick Morgan, Akeem Ayers and Kamerion Wimbley should key the rush. Ayers moves from stongside linebacker to end on rush downs but has been limited by a bad ankle. Tackle Jurrell Casey and weakside linebacker Zach Brown have been the best rushers so far. The fronts are less predictable and the blitzes more frequent. That’s the influence of defensive assistant Gregg Williams. This defense is far better than I expected.

What latest Freeney battle taught Brown

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
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HOUSTON -- There is something to be said for a guy who recognizes he struggled in a game and wants to learn from it.

Brown
Houston Texans left tackle Duane Brown faced the San Diego Chargers edition of Dwight Freeney, and the defensive end was every bit as good as Brown remembers. Perhaps even better.

"The thing about the left-tackle position is your technique is everything," Brown said. "You can be the most gifted athlete, you can be the strongest, you can be the fastest, but if your technique isn't good, a player like that can make you pay for it -- and that's what happened on a few plays Monday night. That will make me perfect my technique. Going against a guy like that, and there are other guys in the league where you have to be sound and disciplined in your technique. It's something I learned from going forward and will improve on."

In the official game book, Freeney was credited with half a sack and three quarterback hurries. Pro Football Focus gave Brown its lowest rating of any tackle in Week 1 Insider. PFF also said Brown rated third-lowest on pass-blocking. He got better as the game went on, but also faced a high volume of passing situations, which put Freeney at an advantage. Brown is one of the best in the league at his position. And so is Freeney.

"I don't know if it's that he's rejuvenated being on a new team, but that's the best that I've seen him in a couple years," said Brown, plenty familiar with Freeney from Freeney's time with AFC South rival Indianapolis. "Also being the first game, he's fresh. There's a lot that plays into it. But he definitely looked pretty good out there."

I asked Brown if the fact that it was the first game of the season might have affected his own technique.

"Monday night on the road, your adrenaline's going, your nerves get going," Brown said. "I think that played a little bit into it. I think I was thinking too much. And I paid for it on some plays. The main thing is that I was able to settle down and did what I had to do in order for us to execute on those last few drives."

Double Coverage: Texans at Chargers

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
12:01
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JJ Watt and Philip RiversGetty ImagesJ.J. Watt and the Texans could make it hard on Philip Rivers if San Diego's offensive line does not hold up.
In the second half of the opening Monday night doubleheader, Houston is traveling to San Diego to put an end to NFL Week 1. The Chargers are in rebuild mode, while the Texans are looking to take the next step this season and become true Super Bowl contenders. While the Chargers’ fan base should be revved up for this prime-time contest, getting J.J. Watt blocked could be a very futile effort for San Diego’s offensive line. ESPN.com’s Matt Williamson and Houston Texans reporter Tania Ganguli bring you their Double Coverage preview.

Tania Ganguli: How has the atmosphere in the organization changed with GM Tom Telesco and coach Mike McCoy taking over?


Matt Williamson: A change in San Diego was certainly needed. The environment had become stale and the once wide-open window under former coach Norv Turner and a roster stocked with great players has closed. A rebuild is needed, and a new general manager and head coach are what is needed to potentially get this team back where it once was -- or maybe beyond. Has the right side of the Texans’ once-great offensive line been fixed?

Ganguli: It's certainly on its way. The Texans are rightfully very high on right guard Brandon Brooks, and right tackle Derek Newton is healthy. They didn't mind rotation in those spots last year, but stability will definitely help.

Can McCoy turn Philip Rivers (back?) into an elite quarterback?

Williamson: I feel as though we have seen the best of Rivers’ impressive career, unfortunately. That being said, the scheme change, which stresses getting the ball out of Rivers’ hands quicker, could be an advantageous move to boost Rivers. He does have a quick release and makes quick reads, making him a good fit for what McCoy is looking to accomplish.

What is the status of Arian Foster, and might Ben Tate have an expanded role for the season and to open the year?

Ganguli: Tate will have an expanded role, especially early in the year. The Texans won't ride Arian Foster too much given he missed all of the preseason, training camp and most of organized team activities (OTAs). He was working, but they're intent on being smart with his return to make sure they have him at full strength late in the season.

What are the biggest problems with the Chargers' offensive line?

Williamson: Once again, the scheme switch to a short passing game should help the protection of this line -- a line that is better-equipped to run block than protect. Still, the true problem with this line is they simply lack good players up front. They added a few free agents, but no one that is even a league-average starter, and they used their first-round pick on D.J. Fluker to play right tackle. However, I have my doubts that Fluker is quick or light enough on his feet for edge protection. Instead, I think Fluker could be a Pro Bowler at guard.

What impact does first-round pick DeAndre Hopkins have on the Texans' offense?

Ganguli: It's difficult for rookie receivers to put up big numbers, but Hopkins will have a major impact on the Texans' offense. He'll take pressure off Andre Johnson, on whom the Texans were overdependent last season in their passing game. He is very skilled on contested catches and will help Houston's red zone efficiency.

What impact does Dwight Freeney have in San Diego?

Williamson: Can he still be productive at 33? Of course it would be ideal to have Melvin Ingram in the fold as well as Freeney, who could be the perfect mentor, but Freeney has looked quite spry through the preseason and should have plenty left in the tank. The concern for me is that San Diego will be forced to play the 33-year-old too many snaps, which could lead to less effective play late in games and especially late in the season.

How big a boost to this team -- tacitly and emotionally -- is it to get Brian Cushing back on the field?

Ganguli: Cushing makes a difference in both ways. He creates mismatches in the pass rush that free up the outside linebackers. His presence in the middle makes things easier on the Texans' defensive backs, too. Emotionally, Cushing provides an edge for the Texans' defense. His maniacal intensity is contagious and the Texans feed off it.

How will Danny Woodhead and Ryan Mathews impact each other?

Williamson: While Mathews is a decent pass-catcher, Woodhead is an exceptional all-around contributor in the passing game. Their roles should be very distinctive, with Mathews -- who has looked excellent this preseason -- as the early-down workhorse (if he can hold up) and Woodhead being the specialty movement player that is equal parts running back and slot receiver.

Watt is a rare interior pass-rusher, but does Houston have enough pressure coming from their 3-4 outside linebackers?

Ganguli: That remains to be seen. It's definitely been a focus for the Texans' outside linebacker group. Whitney Mercilus, now in his second year, has taken over as a starter opposite Brooks Reed after the departure of Connor Barwin. Mercilus set a franchise record for rookies with six sacks last season, but he missed most of training camp and the preseason. Reed is healthier than he was at the end of last season when he returned from a groin injury. He had an offseason surgery to repair it fully.

HOUSTON -- Texans left tackle Duane Brown thought he was rid of Dwight Freeney.

Brown
Freeney
"I won't say I was relieved, but that's a matchup on your calendar you circle," Brown said.

Freeney spent the first 11 years of his career with AFC South rival Indianapolis, so for all of Brown's five years in the NFL, he's had to face Freeney at least once a year, usually twice. It's been part of Brown's development and part of why he's so good. Getting beat by the best teaches a player a lot.

Brown said he's never had a season where he completely shut Freeney down. Last season he didn't. But he has had games where he has.

"You pass the ball against him enough, eventually he'll get it," Brown said.

Freeney left the Colts in free agency to join the San Diego Chargers, and the battle between he and Brown will be one of the best matchups to watch Monday night.

"He's a heck of a player," Brown said. "Still as dominant as he was in his younger years. I look forward to it."

The volume of the crowd inside the Colts' indoor stadium made a difference for Freeney and that will change in San Diego's outdoor stadium. But Brown doesn't expect anything different from Freeney.

One thing will feel weird, though.

"It's different seeing him in a different color jersey," Brown said. "Some guys you see their whole career and you can't imagine them playing with a different team. I think he's one of those guys."

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