Bethea Crucial to Colts Defense, Teammates and Coaches Say
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. – The way Antoine Bethea sees it, he controls what he can.
He figures he has the respect of his teammates.
And of his coaches.
And for the most part, he has the respect of his peers, too.
So, Bethea figures, if he happens to be in a situation where despite all of that – and despite being named to the Pro Bowl in his second NFL season – he often is overlooked, he said he can live with that. And in fact, he said, he wouldn't change his circumstances.
He is, after all, sometimes overlooked because he plays next to Bob Sanders, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who last season was the consensus NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
And Bethea said no way would he change that.
"Some Pro Bowlers, they get a lot of recognition, and there are some who don't," Bethea said Monday at Colts 2008 Training Camp, which continued on Tuesday with a pair of practices at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.
"I don't, but it's cool, because I have a great counterpart in Bob Sanders. All the attention he gets, he deserves. It doesn't bother me. I know what I do. I'm blessed to be in that position.
"You'll never hear me complain about anything."
Nor will you often hear teammates or coaches do anything but gush when asked about Bethea.
Selected in the sixth-round of the 2006 NFL Draft, Bethea to teammates and coaches is far more than just the player who lines up next to Sanders.
He is a crucial part of a defense that emerged last season as one of the NFL's best.
"He's the glue that holds us all together," Colts fourth-year cornerback Marlin Jackson said Monday. "The safety in the hole has to be the quarterback of the defense, and Antoine does maybe the best job in the NFL. I don't think there's a better safety in the middle of the field as far as covering ground, reading the quarterback.
"I think everybody is starting to realize that. Nobody expected him to play so well so fast as a young player, but he's a great player. He goes out there each and every week and plays well. That's because of the way he works off the field. He's one of the hardest workers for us the whole offseason.
"That's why he comes out and plays well."
Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy, who played safety in the NFL in the late 1970s and who has been an NFL defensive coordinator, head coach or secondary coach since 1982, called Bethea's first two NFL seasons as good as he can remember at the position.
"I'm trying to think back to a guy who has stepped in as well as he did and played that position with as few mistakes," Dungy said. "I don't even know who I could go back to as a rookie player. It doesn't happen that much.
"We kind of take it for granted, because of Bob, but Antoine has been pretty special back there."
Bethea in his first two seasons has started 27 of 27 games, the most starts over that span of any player in the Colts' secondary.
After earning the starting position before his rookie season, Bethea started 14 of 14 games, finishing third on the team with 105 tackles, 72 solos. He also had a pass interception and two passes defensed. During the Colts' postseason run that season to Super Bowl XLI, he had 18 tackles and two interceptions with four passes defensed.
This past season, he started 13 of 13 games, finishing sixth on the team with 95 tackles and tying for the team lead in interceptions with four. He made the Pro Bowl for the first time, and led all AFC players in the game with nine tackles.
And although he already had confidence in his ability, Bethea said being named to the Pro Bowl provided an emotional lift.
"It gave me confidence, because that's your peers," he said. "Other coaches vote and the fans, so even though a lot of people don't talk about it a lot, in the back of your head, it says, 'Well, some people are recognizing what you're doing on the field.'
"It did help a little bit, but at the same time, I'm humble and it's a quiet confidence. I just keep it moving."
Even before the Pro Bowl selection, Jackson said teammates knew Bethea's imance. Jackson said that was particularly true of teammates in the secondary.
"He might have a chip on his shoulder, because he's in the background of Bob, but Antoine's also a great player," Jackson said. "He's kind of underappreciated. Not by us, but by the fans."
Bethea's combination of speed and quick anticipation is a perfect fit for his duties in the Colts' Cover 2 scheme, Jackson said.
"If there is a mistake, he can cover up for it," Jackson said. "On a deep pass, he'll be there on the sideline. If a linebacker gets beat by a tight end up the middle, he's going to break on it, but on a deep pass, he'll be there on anything on the sideline on Cover 2.
"That's why he had four interceptions last year – the speed that he has. He has to be one of the fastest safeties in the league."
Yet while Bethea has earned teammates' respect – and a Pro Bowl berth – in his first two seasons, he said he has yet to reach his potential.
"In my third year, you might say I'm a vet, but at the same time, there are a lot of things I can learn and a lot of things I can improve on," Bethea said. "That's what I want to do. There are more things I can learn out there to become a better football player.
"I have experience, but at the same time, there are things I can sit down in the film room and learn and I haven't seen everything on the field yet.
"As I get more reps on the field, I think I can become a better player."
And although he said he can live with being overlooked, he said that doesn't mean he has low goals – either for the Colts or for himself. Not even close.
"I want to make that trip to Hawaii an annual thing, and just like Bob got the Defensive Player of the Year, sometime down the road I want to be able to say I was Defensive Player of the Year one year," Bethea said. "There are always things as a competitor and as a player and my goal every year is to continue to get better as a person and as a football player.
"I'll do anything to help this team get another championship."