He spins. He swipes. He swats. He sacks.
Although Houston’s Mario Williams (6-foot-6, 295 pounds) might be the prototypical defensive end whom personnel men crave, Indianapolis’ Robert Mathis (6-2, 245 pounds) qualifies as a self-made man who torments tackles and quarterbacks just as much as Williams, and, right now, maybe more.
Typically playing opposite Dwight Freeney, Mathis has gone from a situational pass-rusher to a complete player who regularly runs plays down all over the field.
He’s the top tackler on the Colts' defensive line, he’s got 8.5 sacks to go with Freeney’s 9.5. Mathis leads his counterpart in quarterback pressures -- as doled out by coaches as they review film -- 19 to 16.
The two are relentless, but Freeney was a first-round pick. Mathis, a fifth-rounder out of Alabama A&M in 2003, is a far more often overlooked player despite a Pro Bowl appearance last year.
Go ahead, typecast him. He doesn’t care.
“You can look at me however you want to look at me,” Mathis said matter of factly. “I do the same things that 6-6, 300-pound linemen do. It doesn’t bother me at all.”
While fringe fans still might not afford him his proper respect, offensive linemen certainly do.
“He’s such a different kind of defensive end I think than you’ll ever see,” Houston right tackle Eric Winston said. “I think they say he’s 6-2 but there is absolutely no way he’s that tall. I think he’s a little stronger than what he looks like and probably what people give him credit for.
Mathis By the Numbers
Robert Mathis has grown into more than just a situational pass-rusher. This season, along with having 8.5 sacks, he's the top tackler on the Colts' defensive line.
“And obviously you know how fast he is. His spin move is just as good as Freeney’s and he’s a real problem sometimes to handle off the edge, especially when you get down in a game and you have to pass block. … If you think you’re just going to run over him, you’re wrong. He can stand up against double-teams. He can hold his own. Obviously his game is pass-rushing, but he knows how to fit the run just as well as anyone else.”
As Mathis began to make his mark in the league, he wore an awkward label: pass-rush specialist. It was a means to dismiss him as a part-time player for some.
But if you’re going to have a player who’s got one specialty, what else would you choose? And if you’re a player with one specialty, what else would you choose? Bump-and-run man-to-man corner, perhaps, but a good one has a full-time role doing it.
Pass-rush specialist trumps short-yardage back, or deep threat or run-stuffer, doesn’t it? It certainly gets a guy paid more.
Mathis has grown to be more and does just fine against the run.
“He’s a year older than me, but my first year that kind of was his deal, they’d put him in on third down in nickel situations,” said Titans guard Jake Scott, a former member of the Colts. “But with injury problems and as he grew as a player, he developed into a guy who plays every down and he plays well every down.”
“I think he’s become a more complete player, more instinctive and better able to see the keys in the run," said Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt. "Playing the run, instincts are a big part of that.”
Mathis might be as good a representative as there is in the league of carrying a reputation that he’s outlived. He’s an easy-going guy and I believe him when he says he doesn’t mind how he’s regarded. But that Pro Bowl spot last year had to feel good.
It would be better if people came around and realized he’s a three-down guy when he needs to be, but people are often unconcerned with reviewing their classification of a player.
“The sad thing is it takes longer to lose the reputation than it takes to gain the reputation,” Reinfeldt said. “I think people just get it set in their minds a certain way and don’t re-examine the situation. If they’d re-examine it, they’d realize a guy’s become a more complete player.”
Since he arrived in the league, Mathis has a league-high 34 forced fumbles -- roughly one every three games. Freeney’s 27 account for the next highest total in that span.
“He’s just got a knack for knowing exactly where that quarterback is going to be holding it,” Winston said. “He could be getting absolutely dominated coming around and then all of a sudden he’s got those long arms and he’ll tap it right out of the quarterback’s hand.”
Next in line to face Mathis is Michael Oher, Baltimore’s rookie right tackle.
While Mathis might be best known as a guy who’s not well known, Oher is living a different sort of life. He’s the subject of the Michael Lewis book, “The Blind Side,” which has been made into a movie starring Sandra Bullock that premieres this week.
Oher will be making a mistake if he figured Mathis will simply rely on his quickness.
“It’s not just the quickness, he will throw in those counter moves, the counter and the occasional bull rush,” Scott said. “It’s not a lot. But he’s not going to let you just sit there on your heels and be ready for the speed moves all the time. If you do that, he will run you over. You’ve got to be ready to work. He’s going to know what you’re doing and what you’re trying to stop.”