ANDERSON, Ind. (AP) — Robert Mathis has never been through a training camp quite like this.
He’s not fighting for a job, not fighting to prove he can start, not even fighting for practice time. Instead, he’s spending part of these warm, summer training camp days watching the guys trying to replace him. No, the NFL’s reigning sacks king isn’t contemplating retirement or free agency, it’s just that the Colts coaches and his teammates are preparing now for his September suspension.
Mathis will miss the first four regular season games after using for a performance-enhancing substance, which he said was a result of fertility treatments. He is allowed to participate in training camp and preseason games.
“I just go out and maximize the reps that I get,” Mathis said Friday, noting he would normally take some time off at Anderson University anyway because he’s a veteran.
This year, it’s not a choice. The Colts will not have Mathis around for the season-opener against Peyton Manning’ Broncos, the pass-happy Eagles in Week 2 or back-to-back division games against Jacksonville and Tennessee. Mathis can return for the Oct. 5 game against Baltimore.
Coach Chuck Pagano is already working on the backup plan. He wants Mathis to get enough work so he’s not rusty when he returns and still needs to find replacements.
Bjoern Werner is the first option at outside linebacker as he splits snaps with Mathis and played in his spot.
The Colts took the German No. 24 overall in the 2013 draft, hoping he would complement Mathis’ pass-rushing skills. But the All-American defensive lineman hurt his knee in training camp, was slowed by injuries throughout the season and wound up with only 15 tackles, 2.5 sacks and knocked away three passes. Over the final month of the season, Werner started to flash the promise the Colts saw on his college tapes.
Today, he looks like a different player. He returned one interception for a touchdown and batted another ball that was picked off and also returned for a score on the opening day of camp.
“He’s made a huge jump,” Pagano said, explaining how Werner spent most of the offseason working out in Indianapolis. “He’s really put in the time, he knows the defense, he’s really comfortable. We know he’s got the ability, but it’s all a byproduct of the time he’s put in.”
Werner even sounds different.
A year ago, Werner was trying to balance his football studies with trying to fit in. When he checked in Wednesday, Werner seemed confident and at ease with the expectations.
“Last year, Rob got all the sacks for himself. We need some people to step up and get some sacks, too, put that pressure on the quarterback,” Werner said. “If you put that pressure on the quarterback, you’re going to win a lot of games.”
But the Colts know it will take more than one guy to make up for Mathis’ impact. In 2013, Mathis broke the franchise’s career record for sacks and set a new a team single-season record with a league best 19.5 sacks. The rest of the Colts’ defense produced just 22.5 sacks.
Pagano is counting on veterans such as D’Qwell Jackson, Cam Johnson, Arthur Jones, Josh McNary and Erik Walden and rookie linebacker Jonathan Newsome to help take the heat off Werner.
“I’m definitely more comfortable with the scheme, the adjustments and the team,” said Walden, now in his second season in Indy. “I just have to play my game and be consistent, and I think we all have to pick up the slack.”
Pagano also has defensive coordinator Greg Manusky refining the playbook with some new blitz packages.
Meanwhile, Mathis is not complaining.
Since his efforts to appeal the ruling were rejected by league officials, the Alabama A&M alum has been preparing for this unusual role of being a sort of player-coach at training camp and celebrating the birth of his 6-day-old daughter.
“I kiss my baby and wait for my turn,” he said when asked if the looming suspension weighs on him.
Besides, he likes what he sees out of Werner.
“He’s going to shine,” Mathis said. “He’s doing good, he’s getting at the ball, knows his assignments and playing some good football right now.”
Notes: Cornerback Vontae Davis and safety LaRon Landry missed the afternoon practice for a second straight day for what Pagano called “precautionary” reasons. The two starters both sat out the three-day mini-camp in Indy in June with “soft tissue” injuries. Pagano said other players also may be held out in the coming days as a precaution.
Online: AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL