Jan. 1, 2012; Jacksonville FL, USA; Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle Robert Mathis (98) celebrates after recovering a fumble against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the first half at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports
In Week 4’s utter destruction of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts linebacker Robert Mathis was an ungodly force of nature. His first hurry of Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert came a little more than midway through the second quarter. Before the ball was snapped, Mathis stood slightly hunched over, arms swinging by his side—a revving engine.
With zero resistance into the backfield, Mathis was off to the races as soon as the ball was hiked. Jaguars fullback Will Ta’ufo’ou was briefly in position to block Mathis, but instead decided living another day would be just as cool, and stepped out of the way.
This is who Mathis has been all season. He had 3.0 sacks in that game, and after grabbing two more against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, leads football with 9.5. (That number is according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, while Advanced NFL Stats credits Mathis with 10 sacks. The latter site also has Mathis with nine quarterback hits, second only to Terrell Suggs’ 13 among all linebackers. Mathis had 8.0 sacks last season and made the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2010.)
Despite this being the first season of his career free of Dwight Freeney’s long (and endlessly spinning) shadow, Mathis remains one of the most underrated defensive player in football. It’s also his second season as a standing linebacker in Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 defense. Somehow, at 32 in his 10th year, he’s off to the best start of his career.
Combing through his numbers from year’s past it’s silly how good Mathis was. As a 24-year-old defensive end in 2005, he had 11.5 sacks and eight (!) forced fumbles. He missed three games that season, started zero, and didn’t make the Pro Bowl. (Freeney had 11 sacks and six forced fumbles in 16 games, and was named to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro team.)
His first sack this season came against the Oakland Raiders, and it was basically a nail in their coffin. Mathis broke through the offensive line with just over a minute left in a four-point game (and the Raiders threatening in the red zone), and tripped Terrelle Pryor up 16 yards behind the line of scrimmage. (Mathis also took Pryor down behind the line of scrimmage with a minute left in the first half, but it came on a read option, so he wasn’t credited with a sack.)
Only two critical players managed to survive Indianapolis’ seismic metamorphosis from great to awful to respectable and up-and-coming: Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis.
Earlier this week, Monday Morning Quarterback took a look at some quarter-way All-Pros. Clay Matthews and Justin Houston were listed as the team’s two outside linebackers. They’re both fantastic football players, but once again, Mathis was, perhaps unfairly, overlooked.
Maybe the sack total is inflated by some porous offensive line play, (Miami, Oakland, and Jacksonville all rank in the bottom five in pass protection, according to Football Outsiders. But to be fair, Miami’s ranking plummeted due to a Monday Night Football sack fest in New Orleans that took place after Mathis faced that line, Oakland’s quarterback is as swift and slippery as they come, and the fourth team was San Francisco, where Mathis sacked Colin Kaepernick 1.5 times), and maybe Mathis’ ridiculous start slams into a brick wall as the season progresses, and his 32-year-old bones begin to ache just a bit more each week.
Or, maybe what we have is the least appreciated four-time Pro-Bowler who ever lived.
Michael Pina is a writer for ESPN’s TrueHoop Network. He also writes for ScoreBig. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.