WESTFIELD, Ind. – He’s seen it all over the past eight seasons and 124 games, and the challenge entering year nine is no different than when he stepped on the field against the Houston Texans Sept. 11, 2011 as a much-hyped first-round draft pick.
You’re the Indianapolis Colts’ left tackle. Your primary responsibility is protecting the blindside of franchise quarterback Andrew Luck. Be on your game. Or else.
“It’s always tough,’’ Anthony Castonzo said. “That’s a premier position over there, and they bring it every week.’’
Maybe it’s Von Miller one week and Jadeveon Clowney the next. Or Elvis Dumervil followed by Derek Barnett or Calais Campbell.
With a vast knowledge of this pass rusher and that pass rusher – What makes each tick? What separates Player A from Player B? – it’s fair to wonder which ones rank atop Castonzo’s list. Who’s the best he’s face? Who’s No. 2?
“Dwight Freeney’s No. 1,’’ he said. “Robert Mathis is No. 2.’’
I detect a Colts’ bias.
“Yeah,’’ Castonzo said with a laugh, “I might be a little biased. But the guys you go against in practice all the time sort of catch you eye.’’
So, who’s the best non-Colt he’s dealt with?
“You want me to give some love to somebody?’’ Castonzo asked. “OK. Justin Houston of the Kansas City Chiefs.’’
Again, a Colts-biased response considering Houston relocated from Kansas City to Indy during the offseason.
And after sparring with Freeney and Mathis so often in previous seasons, there Castonzo was Thursday at Grand Park Sports Campus, getting into his pass-blocking stance and absorbing Houston’s powerful rush during pass-rush drills.
Castonzo dealt with Freeney his first two years before the Colts opted not to re-sign Freeney after 2012. He and Mathis routinely went at each other from 2011-16.
While Castonzo could be charged with favoritism with his Freeney-Mathis-Houston ranking, there’s statistical evidence to back him up.
Freeney piled up 125.5 career sacks during a 16-year career that spanned five teams, 18th-most in NFL history. Mathis’ 123 career sacks rank 19th and are a Colts’ team record. Houston? His 78.5 career sacks with the Chiefs rank 8th among active players.
Here’s Castonzo’s view of each:
- Freeney: “What made him special is he was a guy who was willing to come with power every play just to get you expecting it. When you have a guy who’s willing to do that, it makes it tough because you never know when he’s going to bring that speed. He has those (speed moves), but he brings that power every play.’’
- Mathis: “He’s a Swiss Army knife. You don’t know where he’s coming from because he’s got it all. He has every move and he would invent his own moves. It’s like he had a lab where he would come up with new moves.’’
- Houston: He’s just a physical freak. You need to stand next to him. That’s a big man (6-3, 270 pounds). He’s got power. I think his arms are about the same length as mine but he’s about 5 inches shorter than I am.’’
Those are the type of players Castonzo deals with virtually every Sunday. In most instances, each team stations its best pass rusher – often its best defensive player – on the right side to bring pressure from the backside of the quarterback.
“Every game. Every game,’’ Frank Reich said of Castonzo regularly facing a premier pass-rush threat. “You just have to have that kind of mentality that you can dominate the best, and right now I think he has that kind of confidence.’’
At left tackle, there’s little room for error. In a 60-play game, he can be perfect and stonewall a pass rusher for 57 plays, but if he falters three times, he’s had a bad game.
“That’s the offensive line,’’ Castonzo said. “We’re the type of guys we are for a reason. We know that’s what’s expected of us. An o-lineman is a special person for a reason.’’
Castonzo has been in the spotlight position for eight seasons and handled it well. He’s arguably coming off two of his best seasons. Castonzo missed the first five games last season while dealing with a hamstring injury, and that contributed to the team getting off to a 1-5 start. His return to the starting lineup solidified the offensive line, which played a major role in the Colts winning nine of their final 10 games and earning a wild-card playoff spot.
Having a top-tier left tackle, Reich insisted, makes things “so much easier. I can’t even explain it. I mean, not that he is going to be 100% in pass protection, but he’s pretty close, you know? I mean, he’s pretty close.
“We will help him occasionally, but I don’t ever feel like I have to. Whenever we chip and help Castonzo, it’s just a bonus just to give him a break so he doesn’t have to have to do it for 40 plays a game and just to give him a little breather.
“But he’s a top-level tackle, and I just think he’s playing at a high level. Physically, he’s in great shape. Mentally, he’s at a great spot.’’
Castonzo is entering the final year of his contract, and it’s uncertain if the Colts are interested in giving him an extension before he hits free agency. General manager Chris Ballard declined to address the possibility earlier this week.
“We always have lines in the water,’’ he said. “And you know my feelings on wanting to keep our players who perform and do the right things.’’
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