Sunday, December 18, 2005
By Mike Chappell, The Indianapolis Star
December 18, 2005
Bob Sanders had an excellent view as the San Diego Chargers used the Indianapolis Colts' defense for target practice last season.
Nursing an injured knee, he was on the sideline, out of range of the pyrotechnics generated by San Diego's Pro Bowl triumvirate of quarterback Drew Brees, running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates. The Colts avoided an upset, rallying for a 34-31 victory in overtime, but their defense had been worn out.
"Any game you're not a part of, it's hard," said Sanders, the Colts' starting free safety in all 13 games this season. "You want to be out there every game."
Sanders figures to be a major contributor this afternoon in the RCA Dome as the Colts and Chargers square off in a showdown of prominent AFC clubs.
The Colts (13-0) are poised to take another step on their historic journey. Already in possession of home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, they can join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only teams in the 86-year history of the NFL to post a 14-0 record.
Survival is the Chargers' objective. At 8-5, they're battling Jacksonville (9-4), Pittsburgh (8-5) and Kansas City (8-6) for one of the two wild-card berths. A slip today won't be fatal but will be detrimental with closing games at Kansas City and home against Denver.
Injuries likely will keep the Colts' defense from being at its best. Corey Simon, the run-stuffing tackle, and Robert Mathis, the unit's top sack producer (111/2), are out with foot injuries.
Sanders, though, is healthy and raring to go. Limited to six regular-season appearances by foot and knee injuries last year, the 5-8, 206-pounder has been a physical and emotional catalyst for a defense that required a jolt of each.
The defense isn't one that revolves around one player. It's based on each player tending to his assignment, trusting his teammates to tend to theirs and being accountable.
However, ask coordinator Ron Meeks the difference in a defense that ranks No. 4 in total yards and No. 2 in points allowed and the 2004 unit that ranked No. 29 and No. 19, respectively, and there's no hesitation.
"Bob Sanders," he said. "One guy. When he's in there, he's a very aggressive, physical guy."
Sanders, in his second NFL season, appreciates the praise but respectfully deflects it.
"I just go out and do my job," he said. "It's 11 guys on the field. We play the same defense. We play together."
In 2004, injuries forced the Colts to use 10 starting combinations in the secondary. The mixing and matching contributed to frequent assignment mistakes and the pass defense yielding 50 receptions that gained at least 20 yards, including 13 touchdowns.
This season, there have been only 27 pass plays of at least 20 yards, with three TDs. It's no coincidence that Sanders and cornerback Jason David have started all 13 games, cornerback Nick Harper has started 12 and strong safety Mike Doss 11.
"We're healthier than we've been in the past," Meeks said. "Bob has been healthy. Jason David was forced into the action last year because of the injuries we had at corner. He made mistakes last year and he's not making the same mistakes."
In last year's win over the Chargers, the Colts' pass defense allowed five receptions of at least 20 yards. That included a 74-yarder by Tomlinson when he exploited a coverage mismatch with linebacker Rob Morris, and Colts safeties were unable to limit the damage.
That's one of Sanders' strengths. Coach Tony Dungy describes him as an "eraser." If a mistake occurs in front of him, Sanders has the ability either to eliminate it, or minimize the gain with a jarring hit and sure tackle.
"He has that no-nonsense attitude of 'Let's just get it done,'" Meeks said. "He has that upper-body violence. When he makes a play, it's full speed, it's with a certain type of aggression.
"And people feed off that."