- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2007

MIAMI. — The best NFL scouts rely on all their senses, not just their X-ray vision. At least, that’s what Bill Polian did when he decided to draft Bob Sanders, his rock-‘em, sock-‘em free safety.

“You didn’t even need eyes to know what kind of player he was,” the Colts general manager says. “You just had to be able to hear the thud when he hit people.”

Sanders was a second team All-American at Iowa, but he was in clear violation of the Rooney Rule — the other Rooney Rule, the one that says you have to be taller than Mickey Rooney to play pro football. Though a solid 206 pounds, Sanders stood, in his words, just “5-8 … and a half,” a potential drawback in a league with ever-taller receivers. Indeed, one team in Indianapolis’ division, Jacksonville, has three who range from 6-foot-4 (Reggie Williams, Ernest Wilford) to 6-6 (Matt Jones).

But Polian didn’t gain a reputation as one of the NFL’s foremost judges of talent by drafting only computer-perfect players. Look at Dwight Freeney, his 6-1 pass rusher. So when the Colts made their first selection in 2004, 44th overall, they chose Sanders — Mini Me in shoulder pads.

Three years and one Pro Bowl later, he’s still rattling rib cages — and Indy, not coincidentally, is in its first Super Bowl. In fact, Sanders might be the biggest reason the Colts have gotten this far, given the dramatic improvement in the defense since he returned from a knee injury.

The unit struggled mightily in the 12 games he missed this season, bottoming out when it got trampled for 375 rushing yards by the Jaguars in Week 14. In the playoffs, though, it has been a different story. The Chiefs were held without a first down for nearly three quarters, the Ravens managed just two field goals and, in the AFC title game, the Patriots couldn’t do much of anything on the ground.

Sanders, meanwhile, was dispensing bruises as he always has — and even intercepting a pass against Kansas City.

“I’m the type of guy who wants to make every play,” he says. “[The rest of the defense] kind of feeds off that. They don’t want me to be the only guy out there ballin’ and making things happen.”

Coach Tony Dungy calls him “The Eraser” because, as Sanders puts it, “when another player screws up, I kind of erase it and make a good play. If he fills the wrong gap, I cover for him.”

Sanders suited up only twice after Week 2, but he was able to “make things happen” in both games. Against Tennessee, he pried a fumble from Travis Henry. Against New England, he picked off a Tom Brady pass at the Indianapolis 3 to squelch a Patriots scoring bid. That 27-20 victory over the Pats enabled the Colts to host the AFC Championship game — and avoid getting frostbite again in Foxborough. And the Colts wouldn’t have pulled it off without their chiropractic free safety.

One man, of course, does not a defense make — as D-coordinator Ron Meeks is quick to point out. Other players, he says, have contributed to the renaissance, tackle Anthony “Booger” McFarland among them. Polian picked up the 300-pound roadblock in a midseason trade with Tampa Bay and immediately compared the move to the New York Yankees’ deadline acquisition of Bobby Abreu. It wasn’t until Sanders rejoined the starting lineup, though, that all the pieces began to fall into place.

“Near the end of the season,” Sanders says, “I really got kind of down. It was very frustrating [waiting for his knee to heal]. I thought: Do I just end it all, go on IR and wait till next season, or do I try to get healthy for the playoffs? It was tough for me to sit there and have our defense get criticized.

“We had a lot of missed tackles in the regular season. Guys were in the right position, they just weren’t making the play. In the postseason we’ve corrected that. Now, the first guy with a shot at the tackle usually makes it.”

And Sanders — the player doesn’t have to be seen to be appreciated, only heard — continues to lead the team in “thuds.” To him, it’s a simple matter of physics. “My coach is always telling me to keep my shoulders low [when delivering a blow],” he says. “But I’m already low to the ground, and I feel that gives me an advantage over other guys.”

Good to know there’s some benefit in pro football to being 5-8 … and a half.

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