Robert Mathis: How today’s NFL makes coaching defense tough


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Former Colts’ star Robert Mathis was part of one of the NFL’s most effective … and feared … pass-rush tandems. With him on one end of the defensive line and Dwight Freeney on the other, the two combined for 230-1/2 sacks in Indianapolis — including 123 by Mathis, who retired following the 2016 season.

“Sacking the quarterback,” he said on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast, “my favorite pastime.”

But Mathis didn’t simply tackle the quarterback. He punished him, with an NFL-best 52 career forced fumbles — many the product of the “Tomahawk Chop,” a move perfected by Hall-of-Famer Derrick Thomas and emulated by Mathis, who studied Thomas as a young man.

“For some reason, he stood out for me,” said Mathis, eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2022. “I just noticed the ball was just bouncing on the ground every time he body-slammed the quarterback. So I started mimicking him.”

He did a good job. Mathis was a five-time Pro Bowler, a two-time All-Pro, an AFC Defensive Player of the Year (2013) and an NFL sacks leader. And now … well, now he’s an assistant coach with the Colts, hired as a pass-rush specialist a year after retiring.

That should be easy for someone like Mathis, who ranks 19th in career sacks, right behind Freeney (125.5). But it’s not. In reality, Mathis said, teaching pass rushers is tougher than people realize in today’s NFL, mostly because rules protecting quarterbacks have made it more difficult to attack the pocket as he and Freeney did.

So what does he do?

“Well,” he said, laughing, “I realize in the coaching world probably one of the worst things you can say to a player that you are coaching is, “I don’t know.” And when (players) ask me, “What are we supposed to do?” “How are we supposed to tackle and finish?” I literally had to say, “I don’t know. Let me find out” And I’m still trying to find the answer.

“It’s pretty tough. But the rules are the rules, and you just have to work within the rules of the game. It’s definitely different. Very, very different.

“I know all the football gods — namely, Deacon Jones and all these types of guys — are kind of rolling in their graves right now. But for the brotherhood of quarterback haters, it’s not good right now.”

Earlier this season, there was an epidemic of roughing-the-passer calls, with officials penalizing pass rushers (Clay Matthews, come on down) who fell on top of quarterbacks as they took them to the ground. That stopped once the league intervened and refined the rule, but a fundamental question remains: How do you tackle a quarterback without falling on him?

“Very true,” said Mathis, “because I don’t know. In today’s NFL, most quarterbacks are bigger than pass rushers, edge guys. How can I tackle Cam Newton (and) Ben Roethlisberger? These guys are 6-5, 265 pounds. I was six feet, 240 pounds.

“I have to get this guy down the best way I know how. So, if you go in there, and you have to think about how I need to tackle this guy when they have a strike zone and five bodyguards and two referees … it’s pretty tough. “

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