Thursday, November 15
A CAPABLE YOUNG FRONT
By John Oehser
Defensive Tackle Trio Maturing Quickly as Rookies
INDIANAPOLIS - To Robert Mathis, this was a case when age didn't much matter.
This was last Sunday night, when the Colts played the San Diego Chargers, and next to the Colts' veteran defensive end was something unusual. Make that three somethings unusual. Unusually young, that is.
With six-year veteran Raheem Brock out with a neck injury, those were the three players in the Colts' defensive tackle rotation against the Chargers Sunday night, three players who helped the Colts hold the high-powered San Diego running game to 91 yards rushing.
It was a big-time test for the Colts’ three rookie defensive tackles.
Consider the test passed.
“They showed maturity,” Mathis said Thursday as the AFC South-leading Colts (7-2) prepared to play the Kansas City Chiefs (4-5) at the RCA Dome Sunday at 1 p.m.
“We needed that. At this point in the season, nobody’s a rookie. We need everybody to step up and be veterans and if not, act like veterans.”
LaDainian Tomlinson, the Chargers’ running back and the 2006 National Football League Most Valuable Player, rushed 21 times for 76 yards and a touchdown on Sunday, with 29 yards coming on nine rushes up the middle. For the game, the Chargers ran up the middle 11 times for 30 yards. And even though the Colts lost, 23-21, the performance of the three young tackles boded well for the future, Colts President Bill Polian said.
“They played terrifically,” Polian said this week. “As (defensive line coach) John (Teerlinck) said, 'It’s going to be one step forward and two steps back.’ That’s the story for all rookies, but we couldn’t be more gratified with the way they played.
“We know that they’ll be capable now of doing a good job for us as we go all the way to the end.”
That knowledge came, as it often does in the NFL, via necessity.
As is the case at several positions on the Colts, injuries have hit the tackle position at various points of the season and in varying degrees, forcing the young trio of tackles into varying roles at various times of the season.
With Anthony “Booger” McFarland out for the season since training camp, Johnson - an undrafted rookie from Penn State University - surprised many observers by winning a starting position in training camp.
He’s a surprise no more, starting the first nine games of the season with 40 tackles – third among defensive linemen – a sack and five pressures, and Johnson said he wasn’t particularly surprised the group played effectively Sunday.
“In this league, it’s unusual,” Johnson said of the three-rookie rotation. “But we work hard every day and our coach (Teerlinck) prepares us like everybody’s playing. I play every week and some guys don’t play as much, but he prepares us like everybody should be ready to play. We knew what was going on and we knew that both of those two were going to be in there a lot. We just wanted to make the best out of the situation.
“We believed in each other and had confidence in each other and helped each other out. We really just did like we do in practice and had fun.”
Brock since 2002 has been among the most durable, reliable players on the Colts’ defense, but shortly before kickoff Sunday, he was declared out for the first time in 72 games. Dawson, a seventh-round draft selection from the Texas Tech University who switched from end to tackle during training camp, moved into the starting lineup, with Pitcock – a third-round selection from Ohio State – also in the rotation.
Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett, the team’s defensive captain, played behind the trio Sunday, and this week, he broke down each player:
• Johnson (three tackles against San Diego). “Obviously he’s a guy who has been able to come in and start for us. He’s been playing well all season. Obviously some games he could play a little bit better, but he’s been getting better and better.”
• Dawson (four tackles against San Diego), who has 19 tackles this season with a sack and three quarterback pressures. “Key is very quick, very agile. He hustles to the ball and makes a lot of hustle plays. He’s another guy who’s coming along.”
• Pitcock (two tackles against San Diego), who has five tackles this season with two pressures. “He’s a very aggressive guy and he went out there and made his presence felt.”
“Those guys work hard all week during practice and they got a chance to go out on Sunday and make the most of it,” Brackett said. “For me, it’s not really about rookie/veteran. It’s how the guy prepares and how he handles himself out there.“All three of those guys in practice have built confidence in myself and the coaches that they’re able to go out there and play well.”
Said Pitcock, “We don’t try to look at it as a rookie thing. We’re all professionals now. We work extra hard as first-year guys. We’re here at seven in the morning watching film.
“We worked hard to prepare for it, so we always felt we can do the job.”
That work, Pitcock said, has spawned a close-knit group.
“We’re really close,” Pitcock said. “We’re in the film room every morning. We eat breakfast together every morning. We do drills together right after walkthrough. We eat lunch together. We may get sick of each other, but it’s a bond that shows on the field where we know what each other’s doing and we can play off each other.”
Said Johnson, “It’s a huge bond between us. We hang out together. We go out to eat together. We do a lot of things on and off the field to try to help each other out as much as we can and just keep all of us up so we can play to the best of our ability.”
Upon McFarland’s injury this past summer, Brock joked about suddenly being the old man of a young group, but more seriously, he discussed his responsibility in his new role – of being a leader and helping the rookies.
On Thursday, he said of watching the trio Sunday, “It was great to see how far they’ve come in a short time this season.”
“They’re getting better each week,” Brock said. “That’s what we expected from them. We need them especially to step up now with all the injuries we’ve had.
“They’re doing a great job. We just want to keep them getting better.”