By Jared Trexler
The eighth man in the box. It's normally a nasty phrase in football fodder. A successful defense doesn't need it, while a porous one creeps that extra defender near the line of scrimmage to clot a bleeding wound.
Meet Bob Sanders, a 5'8" medical wonder, a safety by way of cornstalks and open terrain. A technically-sound hard-hitter, a paradox in today's game of highlight-reel licks and countless poor form.
Since Sanders' return at the beginning of Indianapolis' playoff run, he has turned one of the worst rush defenses in modern history into a solid, stern group in the trenches.
In turn, opposing offenses have faced more down-and-distance issues, allowing Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to streamroll off the edge.
And that's when Indy is at its best. Unleash the speed, sit back in zone coverage and attack mistakes.
Thus, Sanders' role is more significant than tackles or sacks. It's measured in time of possession, and in the fourth quarter when attrition sets in.
If one player can single-handedly change Super Bowl XLI in Miami this Sunday, it isn't the quarterback destined for the Hall of Fame or the all-everything burly beast manning the middle of Chicago's defense.
It's the eighth man in the box -- Bob Sanders.
A little bit about Bob begins with his pedigree, Erie prep school signaling discipline and heart. Four years under Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, highlighted by freshman accolades, an undefeated
conference slate and the nickname "Hitman."
It suits the diminutive Sanders. He hides behind the wide and the tall. Then he sneaks up on the ball, always the attacker never the attacke.
During the regular season, Sanders played in just four games due to a nagging knee injury. The Colts consequently became one of the worst rush defenses in league history, allowing at least 100 yards on the ground in every game.
During a 44-17 Week 14 loss at Jacksonville, the Indianapolis rush defense surrendered 100-plus yards rushing to both Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew -- in the first half.
Embarrassment didn't yield immediate results. The Bengals ran for 133 yards in a Monday night affair the next week, a game the Colts won. Then Ron Dayne pounded out 153 yards and Ronnie Brown followed suit with 115.
An alarming trend had become statistical truth. The Colts couldn't stop the run, making the likelihood of a postseason march remote.
Enter Sanders, seen in the locker room as the man put on the football field of life to stop Larry Johnson. As prognosticators spouted off about the bad match-up with the Chiefs, theorizing that LJ would run for 1,000 yards while keeping Manning off the field, Indianapolis went about its normal practice week -- this time with the safety in toe.
The difference was monumental. He didn't hide his intentions from the opening snap. Unlike how Pittsburgh deploys Troy Polamalu or Baltimore uses Ed Reed, Sanders lined up as a linebacker then went out and played like one.
Johnson's predestined historic day turned into a game without infamy, a paltry line reading 13 carries for 32 yards with a long run of six. Big Bob missed a tackle on that play.
"He just seems to lift the play of the other guys around him," head coach Tony Dungy told the Boston Globe prior the the AFC Championship victory over New England.
"He's excited about practice. He plays with high energy. He's an emotional guy. Our players pick up on that and they feed on that. He does help everybody play a little bit better," Dungy continued.
And as if truer words had never been spoken, Rob Morris and Cato June turned into the second coming of Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks.
Jamal Lewis mustered just 53 yards in the Divisional Playoff, allowing the pass rush to sack Steve McNair twice and rush him into two costly interceptions.
Then, against arch-nemesis New England, the Colts held Corey Dillion to 48 yards and rookie Laurence Maroney to 13 on eight attempts. In the second half of a win-or-go-home contest, the Patriots ran the ball just four times...because they couldn't.
No one would have dared to think that impossible feat was remotely possible before the playoffs began.
A Sanders-less unit that allowed 173 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry during the regular season quickly turned into an immovable force, yielding just 73.3 yards per contest and 3.6 yards a touch.
And because of those stats, the Colts took part in Media Day on Tuesday in Miami, one win away from removing the hump squarely on Manning's and Dungy's backs.
"I was never panicked about our run defense," Dungy said under the Florida sun. "We're going to be tested when we play Chicago, because those two backs (Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson) can pound it."
But so can Sanders.
"They make a lot of plays up front," admitted Jones. "They have a lot of quickness in their front seven, but Sanders is the key to their defense."
Right out of the opposition's mouth.
The key to Super Bowl XLI Sunday night will be whether Jones and his five-man buffet line can find Sanders, and do something three AFC squads couldn't during a rush defense resurgence.
Locate the eighth man in the box, and hit him.
Jared Trexler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
**Picture courtesy of Colts official web home***
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