Up to the challenge: Patriots keep Mathis at bay

Up to the challenge: Patriots keep Mathis at bay
January 12, 2014, 8:45 pm
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FOXBORO -- The Patriots weren't just paying Robert Mathis lip service all last week. Tom Brady called him "the Defensive Player of the Year, basically." Logan Mankins explained Mathis was "one of the most explosive players in the league." Bill Belichick said simply, "You have to find him."

On Saturday night in their 43-22 win over the Colts, the Patriots kept the game's best pass rusher from being the game-changer he had been all season. His 19.5 sacks were tops in the league, as were his eight forced fumbles.

Mathis was able to record one of his patented strip sacks against the Patriots, but it didn't come until late in the fourth quarter, and the Colts weren't able to recover. It was too little, too late.

How did the Patriots slow Mathis down? They accounted for him during every play he was on the field. They found him on the left side of offensive formation 28 times and 26 times on the right. Twice he dropped into coverage.

New England threw varied looks at Mathis, using 10 different players throughout the course of the game to keep him away from Brady.

Tight end Matthew Mulligan and fullback James Develin took him on in the run game. Shane Vereen chipped him hard on the second drive of the game to give Brady time to pass in the red zone. Interior linemen Ryan Wendell and Mankins got their licks when Mathis challenged them on stunts. Even Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola -- both of whom give up about 50 pounds to Mathis -- got in his way. Amendola's best efforts helped keep Mathis clear of a Stevan Ridley touchdown run and a subsequent two-point conversion on New England's second drive of the third quarter.

But it was left tackle Nate Solder, right tackle Marcus Cannon and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui who got the majority of chances to lock horns with Mathis. And at times, they helped one another.

Of the 13 plays Solder met up with Mathis, he was part of a double-team (with Edelman, Vereen, Hoomanawanui or Mankins) on five. During the four one-on-ones Solder and Mathis had on pass plays, Solder won two, lost one (the late-game strip sack) and had one draw when he was almost pushed back into Brady but ultimately held his ground. It was a solid performance from a player one would expect to hold up relatively well even against the stoutest rushers.

Cannon's work on the edge Saturday seemed to be very strong. He also linked up with Mathis 13 times but appeared to get help just once. He successfully blocked Mathis five times on five pass attempts, twice using Mathis' aggressiveness against him and pushing him up the field past Brady. Cannon's one obvious loss on the night was when he was be beaten by linebacker Erik Walden for a sack in the first quarter.

Hoomanawanui saw a ton of Mathis as well, including plenty of one-on-ones, a sign of just how much the Patriots trust the tight end as a blocker. In 18 plays against Mathis, Hoo-man had help, it seemed, on just three. Otherwise he was on his own, a daunting task, and took some lumps.

On six run plays, Mathis used his strength to either push Hoomanawanui back into the play or beat the tight end's block and made the tackle. But Hoomanawanui was up to the task and kept Mathis in check on four of New England's biggest run plays of the day: LeGarrette Blount's first and third touchdowns, Blount's 73-yard score and Blount's 30-yard run in the fourth quarter.

In his one-one-ones with Mathis in the pass game, Hoomanawanui was beaten once but wasn't responsible for a sack thanks to Brady's quick feet in the pocket. Hoomanawanui locked up Mathis in his only other one-on-one.

Mathis wasn't on the field for 18 plays, and the Patriots picked up yardage on 14 of those. Edelman's 25-yard pickup in the first quarter and Amendola's 53-yard gain on a play-action pass in the third both came with Mathis off the field.