INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Bob Sanders wants to redefine the role of NFL safeties.
The former Iowa Hawkeye thinks they should cover receivers deep, lock up tight ends and running backs in man-to-man coverage, be versatile enough to play in nickel packages, stuff the run, and, yes, still carry that old, big-hitting label.
A few more seasons like 2007 could turn Sanders into the league’s newest trendsetter.
On Monday, Sanders was rewarded for his do-it-all style by becoming the first Colts’ player to earn the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
“I think the league is beginning to recognize that safeties are very important to a good defense,” Sanders said. “I think I’m only the fourth safety to ever win this award, and it’s an awesome feeling to be in Ed Reed’s shoes.”
Reed, the 2004 honoree, was the last safety to win the award, and Sanders and Reed are the only safeties to win it since Seattle’s Kenny Easley in 1984. Miami’s Dick Anderson also won the award in 1973.
The voting wasn’t close.
Less than two weeks after becoming the league’s highest-paid safety, Sanders received 31 votes from a nationwide panel of 50 media members who regularly cover the NFL, easily outdistancing Seattle end Patrick Kerney and Tennessee tackle Albert Haynesworth. Kerney and Haynesworth each got four votes.
Sanders established career highs in tackles (132), sacks (3 1/2) and interceptions (two) and became the uncontested leader in Indy’s impressive defensive turnaround when three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney went down with a season-ending foot injury in mid-November.
As opponents found out, Sanders never slowed down.
“He is a lot like Donnie Shell and John Lynch,” coach Tony Dungy said, referring to two safeties he knew from his days in Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. “But he (Sanders) is a 4.4 guy with that striking ability, and that’s rare to find.”
While most think of Sanders’ jaw-jarring hits, his impact is viewed a different way in Indy.
In 2006, when he missed 12 regular-season games because of injuries, the Colts allowed a league-high 5.3 yards per carry. When he returned for the playoffs, nobody could run on Indy.
Sanders returned this year with a Super Bowl ring and determined to play in all 16 games, something he had never done in his previous three NFL seasons. He nearly made it — missing one game with bruised ribs — and prompting joking fans to suggest the Colts shouldn’t play him until the playoffs.
But Sanders, nicknamed “The Eraser” by Dungy because of his ability to cover up teammates’ mistakes, found himself in a new role. The Colts moved him closer to the line of scrimmage this season, and he helped Indy finish ranked No. 3 overall in defense, No. 2 against the pass and No. 1 in points allowed (262). Opponents’ rushing averages also dropped to 3.8 yards.
Those numbers, combined with Sanders’ continual highlights, gave the Colts’ often overlooked defense a new identity.
“We’re no longer the no-name Colts defense,” middle linebacker Gary Brackett joked. “He’s a game-changer. But his presence gives us a comfort level, knowing he’s going to be back there to clean up for us.”
There was a time, however, Sanders wanted to be the league’s hardest-hitting running back.
He grew up in Pennsylvania idolizing Barry Sanders and still dreamed of playing running back until his sophomore season at Iowa. It was then, after earning all-Big Ten honors, Sanders convinced himself he was better suited to playing defense.
And now the muscular 5-foot-8, 206-pound safety wants to show everyone he can do more than hit.
“It’s still a work in progress, and I think there’s a lot left out there for safeties to do,” he said. “I think a safety has to be a guy who can do everything anywhere on the field. ... I want to be that guy and I want to help other guys realize they can do everything.”
Also receiving votes were defensive back Antonio Cromartie of San Diego with three; linebackers Mike Vrabel of New England and DeMarcus Ware of Dallas (2); and cornerback Ronde Barber of Tampa Bay, linebacker James Harrison of Pittsburgh, rookie linebacker Patrick Willis of San Francisco, and end Mario Williams of Houston, each with one vote.
Last year’s winner was Miami defensive end Jason Taylor.
Sanders’ selection came as a surprise to some with the Colts, a franchise better known for scoring points than playing physical defense.
“To me, that’s probably the biggest statement because the national perception is that we’re an offensive team,” Dungy said. “I thought for someone to win it on this team, it would take a big, big impact just to be considered.”
Sanders made sure he made it.
“I think I’m beginning to show flashes here and there of what I can do,” he said. “I can play man-to-man, I can go up and make a play on the ball, I’m making plays at the line of scrimmage or behind the line of scrimmage and I didn’t blitz a lot but when I did, I got there. I want to show everyone that’s how you can play safety in this league.”