MIAMI – On the first kill shot of his playing career, safety Bob Sanders had his eyes closed.
Even now, he struggles to remember the name of the running back he hit. But as a sophomore defensive back for Cathedral Prep High in Erie, Pa., almost 10 years ago, the scenario was familiar: Sanders was the smaller guy. All of 155 or 160 pounds if he's remembering correctly – a far cry from the 206 pounds he carries as the Indianapolis Colts' designated weapon of mass destruction.
What Sanders does remember best is his job. He was the guy who filled the hole. So it was natural that his first big hit came head on against a bigger running back, after building up a head of steam from midfield. And as Sanders remembers, just before he got there, he squeezed his eyes shut.
"I didn't know what would happen," he said.
What happened is what would eventually be his career epitaph: he blew the guy up. Once he opened his eyes, the running back was flattened, and Sanders was lying on top of him. And almost a decade later, not a whole lot has changed.
Unless you count the spotlight, that is.
Heading into Sunday's Super Bowl XLI tilt against the Chicago Bears, it's been squarely on Sanders, who is being hailed as the defining element in Indianapolis' defensive turnaround. And while that might not be the whole truth, Sanders certainly has had plenty to brag about over the last three weeks as the cornerstone of a Colts rushing defense that has reinvented itself overnight.
The team that allowed a league-worst 173 yards per game rushing this season is allowing only 73.3 per playoff game, having yet to surrender 100 yards in a single outing. This despite playing two teams (Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots) ranked among the NFL's top 12 ground attacks.
"We knew what we had at stake in the playoffs and we knew we had the team to do this," Sanders said. "It was just a question of when was the game going to come that would get us over that hump."
The popular theory – more of a lazy explanation, really – has been that Indianapolis' run defense has been reborn largely because Sanders has returned from shoulder and knee injuries that limited him to only four regular season games. It's a nice sentiment, but not entirely true. In the four regular season games Sanders played, Indianapolis' run defense alternated from mediocre (108 yards surrendered against Houston) to awful (219 yards against Tennessee and 186 against the New York Giants). Overall, the Colts allowed an average of 165.2 yards per game with Sanders in the lineup.
"One man can make some big plays, but it's not just one man," Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "It's easy to say with Bob, 'This is exactly the reason why the Colts defense has gotten better.'"
Easy but not correct. In truth, there's a variety of reasons for the turnaround. Before the postseason began, coach Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Ron Meeks got the defense together and unveiled film with the defense missing four, five and even six tackles on given plays. Then Dungy and Meeks laid out their plea, suggesting that the unit was every bit as good as last season's but had simply stopped finishing plays.
"They said, 'This is about us. We're going to make it happen. We can't wait on the offense. We can't go out and hope the offense puts up 40 points,'" Sanders recalls. "You see a running back break five or six tackles – that should never happen. We looked at the film. Guys were missing five or six tackles here and there and that's crazy."
In addition to having Sanders back on the field, the Colts are getting key contributions from other defenders. Meeks points out that defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, acquired at the trade deadline, has finally found his niche at defensive tackle. With McFarland, Darrell Reid and Dan Klecko rotating at the spot, the Colts have smoothed out injuries and personnel failures that drastically thinned the position. And behind them, linebacker Rob Morris and defensive back Marlin Jackson have helped create a more physical pursuit-style unit.
Yet, it's been Sanders who has grabbed much of the spotlight, but not to the dismay of teammates. They have come to thrive on his energy much like the defenses Sanders played on while in college at Iowa. Even opponents have taken some delight in seeing a player seemingly so small stand up guys like Kansas City's Larry Johnson and Baltimore's Jamal Lewis, who outweigh Sanders by 25 and 40 pounds, respectively.
"I'm a big Bob Sanders fan," Bears linebacker Lance Briggs said. "I love to watch Bob Sanders play ball. He does it from a run standpoint to a pass standpoint. To me, defensively, he is their X-factor. He's as advertised. He is that guy."
"He brings a lot back to the defense – a lot of attitude," added Bears center Olin Kreutz. "It's kind of like what Mike Brown brings to us."
But like Brown, Sanders has been injury prone. As the 2004 NFL draft approached, the report on Sanders was consistent: a player of absolute abandon who had the heat-seeking style of a prototype free safety – think former Denver All-Pro Steve Atwater – but lacked the size to stay healthy. In essence, scouts thought that Sanders would end up wearing himself out if he continued to play in the NFL the way he did in college.
Those are things he still hears, not that he pays much attention. Critics will point out that in three years, he's only played 24 of a possible 48 regular season games, thanks to various injuries he's suffered. But at the same time, those same critics will admit that Sanders brings a physical nature that has become a necessity for this Indianapolis defense.
"I don't really worry about [injuries]. When you get into worrying about whether you're going to get hurt or not, that's how you get hurt," Sanders said. "You kind of get timid and you don't really want to go all out. This is my job. This is what I do. I'm here for a reason. I've gotten to this point because of the way I play."
And in some measure, the Colts can say the same thing.