INDIANAPOLIS – There's no replacing Robert Mathis' impact on the Indianapolis Colts' defense. That won't stop Erik Walden from trying.
With Mathis sitting out the first four games due to a suspension for testing positive for a banned substance, Walden says he feels an extra burden on his shoulders to chase the quarterback. After all, the first two games are against Denver's Peyton Manning and Philadelphia's Nick Foles, who are both coming off strong seasons.
“Definitely sack total is my primary focus,” Walden said Wednesday. “No reason, no excuse, just get it done. I have to remain solid, stopping the run, setting the edge, but sacks are my primary focus. It's an emphasis since big homie (Mathis) is gone for four games. It's going to take all of us. I'm putting pressure on myself to replace 19½. Somebody has to do it.”
Walden's “19½” is a reference to Mathis' sack totals from last season, a massive total that reflected Mathis' role as one of the top quarterback hunters in the NFL.
Walden, who came to the Colts as a free agent after playing for Green Bay, usually starts on the opposite side of Mathis. There aren't a lot of sacks available with Mathis logging so many. Walden had only three sacks last season – one at Houston, one at Tennessee and one at home against Houston.
To be fair, Mathis' totals went up from eight to 19.5 in his second season under defensive coordinator Greg Manusky.
It's possible Walden could make a noticeable jump in sacks his second season in the system. Walden said he doesn't want to set a number of sacks as a goal, at least not publicly, but has an idea in mind about what he needs to do to be successful.
“Knowing the system, being familiar with my teammates and the calls, knowing what Manusky is thinking when he's making the calls,” Walden said. “All of that definitely weighs in my favor, and I have to make the most of it and cash in.”
The Colts' defense looks to have the potential to be better this season, particularly when Mathis returns to action. They lost safety Antoine Bethea, which could hurt, but added defensive end Arthur Jones, which should help – perhaps especially in Mathis' absence the first month. The Colts also added veteran linebacker D'Qwell Jackson in addition to re-signing cornerback Vontae Davis.
Year 3 could be a real measuring stick to see whether the Colts are satisfied with the defense under Manusky. The offense looks to be fairly loaded with talent, adding wide receivers Hakeem Nicks in free agency and Donte Moncrief in the draft.
Better play by the defense means more possessions and opportunities for quarterback Andrew Luck and the offense.
“We need a more effective pass rush by everybody, but especially me,” Walden said. “It's a high emphasis that we have to get that ball, get turnovers, get that ball out. Picks, strips, fumbles, whatever we have to do to get off the field on third down. If you can get that ball and get Luck more possessions, then that's always going to work in our favor.”
Walden was part of a winning culture when he played with the Green Bay Packers and calls the Colts' locker room a “championship atmosphere.”
“It's just so many similarities coming from Green Bay,” Walden said. “It's relaxed and they treat you like grown men. It's not that college atmosphere. We have great leaders, a great opportunity to win, a great quarterback with position players around him. We have a great defense that can go. There's really no excuse. We just got to get it done.”