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Indianapolis Colts OLB Robert Mathis having a great season

No matter how the Cincinnati Bengals configure their offensive line this Sunday, outside linebacker Robert Mathis is one of the bigger threats that Cincinnati has seen this season.

Andy Lyons

You have to go all the way back to Nov. 10, 2013 when Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was last sacked by the opposing defense. It was the 21-second mark in the fourth quarter against the Baltimore Ravens in week 10, forcing a spike on third and 15 and eventually leading to A.J. Green's Hail Mary touchdown reception. In the 65 drop backs since, Dalton has felt the relative comfort of a safe pocket.

That streak will be put to the test this Sunday.

For years, outside linebacker Robert Mathis has felt Dwight Freeney's shadow. When his partner left for San Diego during free agency, Mathis began putting together one of his best seasons yet and he's about to displace several of Freeney's records. Already with 15.5 quarterback sacks through 12 games, Mathis will snap Freeney's single-season franchise record (at least since 1982 when sacks became an official statistic) of 16 quarterback sacks ('04). Mathis, currently with 107 sacks, will also tie the mark for most sacks in franchise history; another record currently held by Freeney (108).

One sack. Two records.

And now his ambition is higher; to win the Deacon Jones award, awarded to the player with the most sacks in the league.

"It would mean a lot. I’ve been around for 11 years," said Mathis. "As I grew up watching and looking at the old Deacon Jones film, that would mean a lot to be able to get that very first Deacon Jones Award."

And he has a nice lead. The second-most sacks in the league this season is health by Robert Quinn (13.0) with Mario Williams (12.0), Justin Houston (11.0), Chandler Jones (10.5), Olivier Vernon (10.5) and Muhammad Wilkerson (10.0) as the only players with double-digit numbers.

"I’m not the biggest guy, I’m not the fastest guy, but I’ll put my grind up against anybody. (The award) would mean a lot because there are a lot of talented, productive guys in the league and to be considered the Defensive Player-of-the-Year would be one of the top five moments of my professional career," said Mathis.

The question is posed in Cincinnati is "who blocks him?"

Normally Andrew Whitworth would start at left tackle, but with Clint Boling out for the year and Kevin Zeitler questionable this weekend, it appears probable that Cincinnati reapplies Alternate Offensive Line Configuration No. 1 with Whitworth at guard, leaving backup tackle Anthony Collins at left tackle and Mike Pollak at right guard.

"From the start, you see what (Robert) Mathis has done, all the sacks that he has," said Andy Dalton. "He’s a guy that can really disrupt things. You've got to know where he is at all times."

It's not just the sacks either.

Mathis has generated 43 forced fumbles, most in the NFL since 2003 and fourth-most since 1982 -- including one in each of the past two games. This year alone, he's forced five fumbles, posted a career-high 15.5 sacks and, according to Pro Football Focus, is the third-best outside linebacker among teams with a base 3-4 configurations.

"Robert Mathis is having a great year," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "He's always been an effective rusher, and we've got to do a great job of taking care of him and winning up front across the board. It’s a big day for our lines -- offensive line, defensive line, getting after it."

It's possible that with rough weather conditions expected on Sunday, Cincinnati takes an aggressive approach in their rediscovered power running game against a rushing defense that ranks 28th in the NFL, allowing 128.6 yards rushing per game. In seven of the past eight games, the Colts, who have allowed one rushing touchdown in four straight weeks, have also surrounded at least 120 yards rushing with an average 150.3 yards in those seven.

There's even a belief that Collins could be more fleet-footed than Whitworth, matching up better against Mathis' speed. In the end, the Bengals should have a tremendous advantage with the pending weather, a power rushing offense against a struggling rushing defense, all the while keeping Andrew Luck on the sidelines.

But Mathis could disrupt all of that.