During the first 10 years of his career in Indianapolis, Dwight Freeney struck fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks and defensive coordinators from defensive end.
Over that time, he racked up more than 100 sacks, 43 forced fumbles and countless quarterback pressures. Despite his small stature, he became one of the most respected and dominant pass-rushers in the league.
Opposite Freeney at defensive end in the fabled Tampa 2 defense for much of his career has been Robert Mathis, one of the most successful small school players in NFL history. His body of work is no less impressive. He's compiled more than 80 sacks and 39 forced fumbles, and he has generated a reputation of coming up big in critical spots. Together, the bookend pass-rushers have been to 11 Pro Bowls.
The next chapter for Freeney and Mathis is considerably less certain than their past, however. With this offseason's sweeping changes comes a new defensive scheme and a position change for both players.
New Colts head coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky have installed a hybrid 3-4 defense for 2012 that calls for Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to move to outside linebacker for the first time in their career.
The question remains: Can the league's best defensive end duo become one of the league's best outside linebacker tandems?
The answer to that question isn't just one of ability, but also willingness. While Robert Mathis instantly accepted the change, Dwight Freeney has expressed more reticence:
"Well, it's going to be an adjustment for me," Freeney said. "I'm a guy who's used to … hand down, going one direction and that's towards the quarterback, towards the running back, whoever's in the backfield. And that line of sight is a comfort level for me when I have my hand down. And now, playing linebacker, it has some similarities, but I'm also going to be dropping in space and running in the opposite direction of the quarterback.
"It's going to be an adjustment, I'm excited for the challenge. It's something new."
The technical aspects of the conversion from the 4-3 to the 3-4 defensive are incredibly taxing on personnel but offer defenses with quality pass-rushers some significant advantages. Ty Schalter broke down the differences between the two schemes and noted that while the outside linebackers are critical to the pass rush, inside linebackers are freed for interior blitzing and pass coverage:
The biggest threat the 3-4 poses to offenses, though, might be the two interior linebackers. Though they can help pick up the coverage slack left by the blitzing outside guys or blitz in combination with them, they can combine to execute one of the most difficult-to-stop blitzes in football: the Double A Gap Blitz.
The learning curve may not be as steep as assumed based on observations of those same concepts from camp. Phil B. Wilson of the Indianapolis Star believes the Colts will use Freeney and Mathis in pass-rush situations, rarely asking them to drop into coverage as a way to best utilize their talents while minimizing their weaknesses.
It's too early to know if Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis will be as feared at outside linebacker, as they were in the 4-3, but it's clear that the scheme can and will make the most of their skills in the upcoming season.