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.”