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Freeney, Mathis ready for something fresh and new

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For more on the Indianapolis Colts mini-camp, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at pdiprimio.

Veteran Colts embrace new defensive roles

Thursday, June 14, 2012 - 11:12 am

INDIANAPOLIS – Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis hit the Lucas Oil Stadium field invoking the music if not the spirit of Sam Cooke.

They sang “Chain Gang,” a classic song by a classic soul singer that evoked hard work at a hard task under a broiling sun.

So Freeney, Mathis and the rest of the defensive line, fully immersed in the conversion from a 4-3 front to a 3-4 style, jogged toward Wednesday's public workout beneath a bright sun (the stadium roof was open) displaying passion, enthusiasm and fun.

Change, it seems, is good.

“We have something fresh, something new,” Freeney said. “The possibilities are endless. This defense is a proven defense. Look at San Francisco, the Steelers, the Ravens. They're always in the top 5 in defense every year. The proof is in the pudding. It's matter of us getting it down.”

Basically, a 4-3 defense means four linemen and three linebackers. The defensive ends have one hand on the turf and explode into the backfield trying to stuff the running back and pressure or sack the quarterback, depending on whether it's a run or a pass.

The 3-4 means three defensive linemen and four linebackers. It means more blitzing. Freeney and Mathis will sometimes have roles similar to the 4-3. Other times they'll start standing up, like a linebacker, and either blitz or drop into pass coverage.

“(Standing up) is different,” Mathis said, “but I'm starting to get used to it. I'm liking it. You can see more. It's not about your head is down and you're taking off and going. You can see more. You play a lot looser standing up.”

That leads to a question – who is most likely to get a pick-6 (an interception returned for a touchdown), Freeney or Mathis?

“I don't know,” Freeney said. “That's a good point. I'll bring that up to (Mathis). I haven't spoken to him about that because we're more about sacks than interceptions, but I will.”

For the record, they have combined for zero interceptions in their careers. The 6-1, 268-pound Freeney has played 11 NFL seasons. The 6-2, 245-pound Mathis has played 10 years.

Sacks remain their specialty. Freeney has 102 in his career. Mathis has 83.5.

Both are now listed as outside linebackers. For the first time in their careers, both have spent time working with linebackers as well as defensive linemen. It is part of the hybrid approach first-year coach Chuck Pagano brought over from his days as Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator.

“On any of those downs,” Pagano said, “we can look the same as they did last year, and then we can get as exotic as heaven.”

Added Freeney: “We'll switch it up. We've been doing a lot of that. Sometimes it will be like it used to be. Sometimes we'll come with blitzes. Different blitzes. Three or four of them.”

Freeney said the coaches didn't have to talk him into accepting this new role.

“Not at all. This defense produces some great statistics.

“Look at what I do. It won't be that different than what I do.”

In other words, he's going after the quarterback. So is Mathis.

“It's all about learning a new scheme and getting it down,” Mathis said. “When you understand what you're doing, you can play a lot faster.”

Pagano said he's happy with his veterans' progress.

“They've done a great job, mostly because they've been here (at all the organized team activities). Their attendance has been phenomenal. We knew there would be a little bit of a learning curve and the fact they're having to do all sorts of different things, like drop into coverage. They've done a tremendous job. They've picked it up really well.”

So did rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. Most of Wednesday's estimated crowd of 7,500 came to see if Luck could live up to the hype of being the NFL's No. 1 draft pick and the man chosen to replace Peyton Manning. Many fans wore Manning's old No. 18 blue jersey.

In situational drills Luck completed 26 of 37 passes, including a touchdown pass to receiver Austin Collie and a 20-yard strike to Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne.

“We've still got work to do,” Wayne said, “but I like him. He's got a great ball, nice spin on it. Whenever your quarterback is having fun, you've got to have fun, too.”

Added Pagano: "I thought Andrew did a phenomenal job. I know there are some deep balls he'd probably like to have back, but that goes back to the chemistry thing and the timing thing. Those things will come.”