Ninth of a Position-by-Position Look at the Colts' Roster
INDIANAPOLIS - As Tony Dungy sees it, the Colts have many elements at safety to make it a successful, productive position.
They have depth. They have speed, and physicality. They have talented youth.
They have a pair of Pro Bowl players.
And, of course, they have Bob Sanders.
Sanders, a fifth-year NFL veteran and the league's consensus defensive player of the year this past season, entered the 2007 season with the specific goal of staying healthy enough to prove he belonged among the league's elite players at his position.
He did so, and helped the Colts' safety position emerge as one of the strong areas on one of the NFL's most-improved young defenses.
And Dungy, entering his seventh season as the Colts' head coach, said there's something as imant to remember about Sanders.
He's still improving.
"Bob was the defensive player of the year, and he feels like he'll improve and do some things better," Dungy said recently in an interview with Colts.com for this story on the team's safeties, the ninth of a position-by-position series that will conclude this month.
Sanders, who was named a Pro Bowl starter for a second time in three seasons, started 15 games in 2007, finishing second on the Colts with 132 tackles. He also had 3.5 sacks, two interceptions and six passes defensed.
But statistics, Dungy said, don't fully explain Sanders' impact on a defense, or his ability to impact – and at times, control – a game despite being considered smaller than the NFL prototype for his position.
"With him, it's really desire," Dungy said. "He's got the speed and the hitting ability, but it's his desire to get to the ball and stay on his feet and chase things down. He brings a lot of energy that's really hard to explain.
"He's a very instinctive guy. He just has a nose for the ball. He finds the ball like a linebacker. We're working to get that same feel when he's in the deep zones, but when he's close to the line of scrimmage, or when he's in the flat or the curl zone, he's just very much got a nose for the ball that you can't really even coach."
An example of that instinct, Dungy said, came in one of the Colts' key games of the season – a 29-7 victory at Jacksonville on October 22 that gave Indianapolis early control of the AFC South race.
On 4th-and-1 from the Jaguars 49 late in the second quarter, Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew ran around the left side following a fake handoff up the middle. Sanders read the play and stopped Jones-Drew for a one-yard loss.
The Colts converted the stop into a field goal that gave them a 17-0 halftime lead.
"Those are plays you need to win games," Dungy said. "They're outside the scope of the defense, but that's what wins for you and that's what he's able to bring us."
Sanders, a second-round selection in the 2004 NFL Draft from the University of Iowa, was just part of one of the league's top safety tandems, a duo that helped the Colts' secondary also emerge as one of the league's best.
Antoine Bethea, a 2006 sixth-round selection from Howard University, started 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.
"It was rewarding to see him in the Pro Bowl," Dungy said. "He has a chance to be that ball-skills safety that can have eight or nine picks in a year. They (he and Sanders) complement each other real well.
"He's still growing and learning and starting to have that confidence to be decisive out there, to make changes and make those calls, to get everybody in the right place, and then be very confident in his play.
"He improved over his play in Year One and I think he'll have another jump."
Dungy said there was more this past season to the safety position, which he said is not only talented, but deep. Backup Matt Giordano, who is entering his fourth season, played extensively last season, starting four of 12 games games and registering 21 tackles. He also had two interceptions, returning one 83 yards for a touchdown in a season-opening victory over New Orleans.
Brannon Condren, a fourth-round selection in the 2007 NFL Draft, played eight games and had four special teams tackles, with second-year veteran Melvin Bullitt – a rookie free agent last season – playing in 15 games and registering 14 tackles on defense and 11 on special teams.
"They're five guys who are going to continue to grow and all five of them should get better this year," Dungy said.