Indy's sparkplug

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

Indianapolis Colts safety Bob Sanders stands all of 5-foot-8 and has a decidedly skinny frame, to the point that his jeans barely hang on his waist even with a belt. About the only part of his body that stands out are the muscles stacked high on his shoulders, working their way up the back of his neck.

Good thing, too, because the diminutive Sanders shoulders a great burden for the Colts. This season, as he has battled a right knee injury that limited him to four games in the regular season, the Colts' run defense was a mess. Indianapolis finished the regular season with the league's worst run defense, allowing 173 yards per game. It was embarrassingly bad, getting lit up by Tennessee (219 yards in second meeting), Denver (227) and Jacksonville (375, second meeting). Somehow, that group reversed fortune against Kansas City in the first round of the playoffs, allowing only 44 yards on 14 carries, including only 32 by Larry Johnson.

It was a stunning effort that the Colts obviously hope to repeat Saturday against the Baltimore Ravens and running back Jamal Lewis during the divisional round. Much of it was due to the play of Sanders, even though he had only three tackles and even though his highlight play of the day was a second-half interception.

"He sets the tone back there," Colts linebacker Cato June said. "He's flying around, getting everybody fired up, making everybody want to run to the ball that much harder. You're talking about a Pro Bowl player. He can only help us."

Or as former Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper, who worked last Saturday's game for the NFL Network, said: "He brings that tough-guy mentality."

Moreover, with toughness comes confidence. What Sanders provides the Colts when he plays is not just another willing run defender; he provides security.

This is the key to the safety position, which is the last line of defense. The safety can't get beat for long runs. If that happens, it creates a chain reaction for the defense. Linebackers don't run as hard to the ball because they're playing cautious. Defensive linemen like Anthony McFarland, who had his best game since being acquired from Tampa Bay via trade in October, don't shoot gaps.

Ultimately, that's where coach Tony Dungy's undersized defense gets exposed. Basically, if you're small, as Dungy prefers, you better play fast. When you don't play fast, small and slow gets killed.

Thus, Sanders has become Indy's version of what John Lynch was for Dungy in Tampa Bay.

"They bring the same type of emotional lift, the same type of impact in terms of setting a tone for the defense the way we want to play," Dungy said. "John is more of a physical guy who's going to take you on. Bob is more of a slasher who is going to get around the offensive players."

On Saturday, Sanders will have to be on top of his game. If not, look for the 250-plus-pound Lewis to run over the Colts as the game progresses.

"He's a big man who's quick on his feet," said Sanders, who will give up a minimum of 50 pounds in a one-on-one matchup with Lewis. "You have to attack him, wrap him up and get him down quick or he's gone."

And if Lewis is gone, the Colts won't last long.

COACHING SALARIES
One thing has become abundantly clear about the future of coaching salaries in the NFL: A serious explosion is near.

Two factors figure to push that point. First, the eight-year, $32 million contract former Dolphins coach Nick Saban received from Alabama is going to further push the salary explosion at the college level, thereby creating more competition with the NFL for coveted candidates.

Second, look for former Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher to seriously cash in a year from now, if he indeed returns to the NFL. Already, Cowher has been linked to four potential jobs (Cleveland, Washington, the New York Giants and the Dolphins) after the 2007 season. If Cowher has two or three suitors, he could easily surpass the $7 million per year figure, particularly if Washington owner Dan Snyder gets involved.

In fact, there's already evidence of an increasing pay scale. For instance, the ever-cheap Raiders had to give Art Shell a $2 million-a-year deal after paying previous Norv Turner just over $1 million on his deal.

As one agent who represents numerous coaches said: "I think the jump is going to be staggering. Look at Pete Carroll. He wants $7 million a year to leave [USC] and he's going to get it if he continues to win like he has. Is he worth it? Probably not, but that's what it's going to take. He has a sweet deal at SC."

STALLWORTH RETURNS
Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Donte' Stallworth, acquired during a training camp trade with the Saints, makes his return to New Orleans on Saturday. Stallworth missed the Eagles' regular season game at New Orleans, but scored a touchdown in Philadelphia's playoff victory over the Giants last weekend.

Stallworth, shipped in part because of the emergence of rookie Marques Colston, has some interesting observations about his former position mates.

Stallworth said he could see in training camp that Colston was developing very fast, so fast that he advised Colston to have the video department put together a tape of Terrell Owens moves so that Colston could study Owens. Stallworth thinks Colston could be every bit as good as Owens one day.

"I wanted him to get a video of what T.O. did [in Philadelphia] in 2004 because that's the guy he can be like," Stallworth said. Colston didn't do that right away, so Stallworth took matters into his own hands.

"I remember walking him over there [to the video department] when he didn't get it earlier," Stallworth said with a bright smile. "Of course, he's part of the reason I'm here now, but that's all right."

As for his good buddy Joe Horn, who has been hampered with injury woes all season, Stallworth sees a plot brewing as to why Colston and Devery Henderson have been getting more and more action as the season unfolded. Horn is due more than $7 million in base salary next season.

"With all respect to Marques Colston and Devery Henderson, they're not Joe Horn," Stallworth said. "It's obvious. [The Saints] owe Joe some money next season. I've been around long enough to know they weren't going to get the ball to Joe this year after those guys played well.

"They're going to tell Joe that he's not the player he was and they'll try to get him to take less money. But to me, Joe Horn is still everything he ever has been."

THIS AND THAT

  • Speaking of the Giants, defensive coordinator Tim Lewis was dismissed Thursday, which was not a shock after the defense fell flat. But the decision wasn't completely based on performances. Rather, Lewis continues to be his own worst enemy when it comes to in-house reputation. Lewis has been criticized by former players for belittling players during practice and to the media. Lewis also had problems with Cowher when he worked as the Steelers defensive coordinator, ultimately leading to Lewis being fired. It's a sad evolution for a talented coach and smart man.
  • Having mentioned Carroll before, don't take his denials of ever leaving USC as completely straight. As a friend of his said recently: "If he didn't have any interest in going back to the NFL, he wouldn't have taken the meeting [with Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga]." Carroll met with Huizenga in Costa Rica this week, where Carroll was vacationing. Carroll is one of 12 men the Dolphins have interviewed for the job.
  • Having mentioned the Dolphins coaching search, it's troubling to note that general manager Randy Mueller has had little or no involvement in the process. Of course, that means that Mueller is on thin ice with the team. But the bigger problem is that it's a clear indication that Huizenga is very much in the mind to hire a coach who will have full authority over personnel decisions. That philosophy may work in the business world, but it has problems in football. The Dolphins would be wise to either make Mueller a real GM or let him go and bring in a real GM who would have more say in hiring the next coach.
  • Not more than an hour after losing to Indianapolis in the first round of the playoffs, Kansas City coach Herm Edwards was already considering the future of his team. That could include some drastic moves this offseason. "We're going to have to blow it up a little bit, we're pretty old," Edwards said. That's a good point. The Chiefs had 12 regular starters in '06 who will be 30 or older next season. That ranks as one of the oldest teams in the league. Furthermore, running back Larry Johnson aged quite a big this season after setting an NFL record with 416 carries. Edwards hopes to get another running back who can take at least 75 of those carries from Johnson's workload, if not 100. After that, Edwards believes the Chiefs must find a legitimate wide receiver to complement Johnson, quarterback Trent Green and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez figures to be kept by the team after it slaps him with the franchise tag.
  • Anybody who thought that Indianapolis defensive end Dwight Freeney has lost anything after getting only 5½ sacks this season should take a look at Freeney's work in the first round. Freeney had two sacks, the first of which was a stunning move against Kansas City left tackle Jordan Black. Freeney shot off the line with an amazing first step and then stayed so low that he was able to dip under Black's grasp to get to Chiefs quarterback Trent Green. Truly stunning! Like Gonzalez in Kansas City, Freeney figures to get the franchise tag after this season if an extension can't be worked out.
  • Don't be surprised if Oakland's Davis puts up a fuss over paying the departed Shell his entire $2 million owed for next season. Davis once short-changed Mike Shanahan after firing him, forcing Shanahan to go to the league to arbitrate the matter. According to two sources, Davis' final meeting with Shell was extremely contentious, which was surprising treatment of a former Raiders player.
  • Speaking of Davis and the Raiders, the same two sources indicated that Davis remains committed to keeping malcontent wide receiver Randy Moss and Jerry Porter unless he gets a huge price in trade. Davis remains fearful that either of the players will go elsewhere and play well again.
  • Since being traded by the Chargers in the 2003 offseason, linebacker Junior Seau has missed out on three chances to play at his former stomping ground as New England visits San Diego in the playoffs Sunday. In 2003, the fires in San Diego forced the Dolphins-Chargers game to be moved to Arizona. In 2005 and again this season, Seau was injured.
  • Congratulations to Jim Bates after being named the assistant head coach for defense with Denver. Bates has been held in high regard by Broncos coach Mike Shanahan for many years. Bates, 60, spent the past season out of football. He was frustrated when he didn't get the head coach job with Green Bay after the 2005 season, but remains one of the more upbeat, energetic coaches in the business.
  • Dolphins quarterbacks coach Jason Garrett appears to be one of the hottest names on the list of up-and-coming coaches. Garrett has interviewed with Cleveland for its offensive coordinator job and with LSU for the same position. He also was one of Art Shell's candidates for the OC position if Shell had been allowed to stay.