INDIANAPOLIS – He's like that nagging fly in the room, or the rock that slips into a shoe. Perhaps he is the horrible song that gets stuck in a person's head.
He might be the smallest player on the field Sunday evening but when it comes to Saints running back Darren Sproles, big things come in small packages.
At 5-6, Sproles is the shortest player in the NFL, but the seven-year veteran has created big challenges when facing the Colts.
The 2011 season marks Sproles' first with New Orleans. He spent the previous six years with San Diego.
Perhaps Sproles' greatest asset is his versatility. Even though he his labeled as a 'running back,' he is both a kick and punt returner and is one of the most productive receivers out of the backfield in the NFL.
The 2007 season was when Sproles first introduced himself to the Colts, and he played a prominent role in the meeting on November 11.
Sproles made NFL history when he scored his first two NFL touchdowns via a kick and punt return. The Kansas State product took the opening kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown and later in the game returned a Hunter Smith punt 45 yards for another score. He became the first NFL player with a kick and punt return for touchdowns in a game since Dante Hall did it with Kansas City in 2003. Indianapolis rallied in the game and nearly overcame his efforts, but San Diego prevailed, 23-21.
The teams met a few weeks later in the Divisional Playoffs in the RCA Dome. This time Sproles attacked from the backfield with a 56-yard touchdown reception. It was the go-ahead score on the final play of the third quarter. The teams traded fourth-quarter touchdowns before San Diego emerged with a 28-24 victory.
Flash forward one season and once again it was Sproles who played a key role in another playoff match between the Colts and Chargers.
Indianapolis traveled to San Diego on January 3, 2009 for an AFC Wild Card showdown. Without running back LaDainian Tomlinson, Sproles answered the bell rushing for 105 yards and two touchdowns. Sproles also chipped in with 45 yards receiving and 178 return yards giving him 328 all-purpose yards, the third-most all-purpose yards by a player in a single NFL postseason game.
After Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding sent the game into overtime with 31 seconds remaining, it was Sproles who ended things when he ran 22 yards for the game-winning score.
Defensive end Dwight Freeney has seen the handiwork of Sproles up close and says the most difficult thing in stopping him is finding him.
"Sproles has always been a tough matchup for us. Obviously, we remember him from when he played for San Diego for those years," Freeney said. "Before you knew it he was on top of you, running by you. He seems like he appears out of nowhere. It's definitely going to be a tough challenge for our defense and our special teams."
The Saints could use a trio of backs on Sunday night and even though he is used in other facets of the game, Sproles has had games of seven and 11 carries in the past three weeks. Despite being the shortest player in the league, Sproles still weighs 190 pounds and is not afraid to run between the tackles.
"He's a very quick back. For his size, he's very powerful, too. He runs very hard," defensive tackle Dan Muir said. "He's one of those guys you have to get your hands on and make sure you tackle him."
Scheming to stop Sproles is not an easy task and cornerback Jerruad Powers said it will have to be a collective defensive effort in neutralizing the speedster.
"Get all 11 guys to him. You are just going to have to get all 11 guys running to him because he will break a tackle and if a seam is there, he will take it to the house," Powers said.
It was on special teams where Sproles first made his impression on the Colts back in 2007. His first impression on the Saints came in the opener against Green Bay when he returned a punt 72 yards for a touchdown.
"One thing is he has great vision," said safety Joe Lefeged. "They do a great job blocking for him. He sees the seam and he hits it. Not only that even if you have a guy down there, he can make you miss and he can take it the distance any time he has the ball in his hands. I think it does help him (his height) especially as far as defense is concerned when he's hiding behind the offensive line. He's just a great athlete and can make guys miss in open space."
Long-snapper Justin Snow has been a part of units trying to counteract Sproles' effectiveness. Snow knows the attributes Sproles possesses.
"He's just super quick. He's got good vision. He's smaller, so he's harder to tackle. He's just so shifty," Snow said.
The area where the Saints have utilized Sproles the most in 2011 is the receiving game. Sproles has caught at least five passes in each game and is averaging just under eight yards per reception.
"(He brings) quite a few things, because he's just so dangerous in so many areas once he gets the ball in his hands," Head Coach Jim Caldwell said. "They do a good job of getting it to him and getting him touches, obviously, in the return game, but also getting him out in space. That's where he's really dangerous, because he's a very tough guy to handle in the open field. He's got speed and quickness. Oftentimes, you may find a guy that's very quick but maybe doesn't have the breakaway speed. This guy has them both. He also runs the ball out of the backfield, but the problem there is that sometimes he's a little difficult to see until he squirts out through one of those gaps, and then you have a problem on your hands. He's multi-talented and certainly a guy that has unbelievable athleticism."
Colts Vice Chairman Bill Polian had high praise for the man he hoped he would not see on the field again for a long time.
"We've got to see that guy again, and he's playing as well as he's ever played," Polian said. "He's playing great in the running game. He's playing phenomenally in the passing game. Of course, he's always a threat as a return man. He's doing a great job there."