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MIAMI — The assembled media here hung on every one of Dwight Freeney's words on Tuesday. Would Freeney declare himself in or out for Super Bowl XLIV here and now at Media Day? Probably not, but they packed in tightly around a podium inside Sun Life Stadium to listen all the same.
Freeney, the Colts' right defensive end, has a torn ligament in his right ankle, and his status for Sunday could remain murky until Indianapolis declares its inactive players 90 minutes before game time. With two weeks between the AFC title game and the Super Bowl, he may have the necessary time to heal in time to face the Saints on Sunday, especially since he is receiving around-the-clock treatment. But we probably won't know until he takes his first forceful steps on the turf.
In another part of the room, Robert Mathis, the Colts' left defensive end, also sat behind a podium, but far fewer media gathered around him. There is no question that he'll play Sunday, so there was, in turn, less clamoring for his answers.
While Mathis usually draws second billing to Freeney, all eyes will be on him Sunday if Freeney can't go. And Mathis, voted a Pro Bowl starter, is quite capable of picking up the slack, for he doesn't take a back seat to many defensive ends. The Colts' dynamic pass-rushing duo may be referred to as Freeney and Mathis because Freeney gets to the quarterback a little more often, but Mathis gets there a lot, too.
Mathis surely ranks as one of the great scouting finds of recent memory. Many teams projected him to linebacker in the pros. How many? Mathis claims 31, to be exact.
"Of all the 32 teams, the Indianapolis Colts wanted me to be a defensive end," said Mathis, who played collegiately at Alabama A&M. "All the rest of the teams wanted me to be a linebacker. I came on a visit (to the Colts) and they pretty much told me I was going to be a defensive end."
The Colts followed through, selecting him in Round Five of the 2003 NFL Draft. He quickly became a key part of the defense, providing another needed dose of pass-rush punch to complement Freeney. Like Freeney, Mathis has outstanding speed off the edge, and he also has a penchant for knocking the ball away from opponents, and particularly quarterbacks. Mathis has forced 35 fumbles in seven NFL seasons; since 2002, only Freeney (36) has forced more — and with the benefit of one extra season to his credit.
"We work on it every day in practice," Mathis said of the strip sack. "Every time you make a tackle, you try to strop the ball out. [It is about] repetition, repetition."
In addition to speed, the 6-2, 245-pound Mathis can play with power, and he understands how to use his short (relatively, of course) stature to his advantage against taller, less nimble tackles.
"Seeing as I am a lot shorter and smaller than they are, leverage is your biggest asset," he said. "Low man wins, they always say, so you have to (use) it to your advantage."
In his first season in charge of the Colts' defense, defensive coordinator Larry Coyer has come away impressed with Mathis' work ethic.
"It is hard to explain to you how hard he works, both in practice and in games," he said. "It's unbelievable. You set that with some talent God has given him - his speed, his quickness and leverage — and it separates him."
Paired with Freeney, he's one-half of the NFL's most feared DE tandems. Standing alone, he's one of the NFL's most feared pass rushers, respected by rival coaches, evaluators and teammates alike.
His backup, Keyunta Dawson, marvels at his talent.
"He does things that I look at in practice and try to copy and I can't do it," he said. "It's more than (just) leverage — his balance, his spins. He's like a ballerina when he spins. He knows the exact time to do his move."
Freeney or no Freeney, Mathis could have a major impact on Sunday's game; that many forced fumbles can't be an accident.