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AP picks Colts' Sanders as top defensive player

NEW YORK -- Bob Sanders' impact on the vastly improved
Indianapolis defense, not to mention his impact on opposing ball
carriers, earned the Colts safety The Associated Press 2007 NFL
Defensive Player of the Year award Monday.

Sanders makes highlight films with his smash-mouth style and
knack for always being near the ball. His value as a leader -- the
Peyton Manning of the Colts' defense, if you will -- was just as
much a factor in Indianapolis having the third-ranked unit in the
NFL and allowing just 262 points, a league low.

Yes, these Colts can play dominating defense, and Sanders is the
main reason.

"One of the things we talked about when he first got here was
how critical this position is in this defense," said coach Tony
Dungy, who has nicknamed Sanders "The Eraser."

"Donnie Shell went to five Pro Bowls, and John Lynch went to I
don't even know how many Pro Bowls. You get asked to do a lot of
things in this defense, and it's rare to find someone who can do
those things."

Sanders did enough to earn 31 votes from a nationwide panel of
50 media members who regularly cover the NFL. That was particularly
impressive because it was a strong season for individual defensive
performances.

Yet next closest in the balloting were Seattle end Patrick
Kerney and Tennessee tackle Albert Haynesworth with four votes
each.

Sanders was a huge factor in the Colts' surge to the Super Bowl
title last year. He missed most of the regular season, got healthy
for the playoffs, and suddenly teams couldn't run or pass
effectively on Indy.

With Sanders in the lineup for 15 games this season, the Colts
were superb defensively on their way to a 13-3 record and the AFC
South crown.

Not that Sanders laid back in an attempt to stay healthy.

"[The award] is a goal I set for myself every year and for
it to come so fast is something I never expected," Sanders said.
"It's exciting, it's an honor and I will cherish this moment
forever."

His teammates were celebrating right there next to him.

Indianapolis is typically regarded as an offensive juggernaut,
and Sanders is the first Colts player to win the defensive award.

Plus, he did it in a season when the Colts lost their other key
defender, Dwight Freeney, for the final seven games with a
season-ending foot injury. Freeney was just one of a handful of
starters who missed games, but Sanders remained the constant on
defense.

"His presence makes us better," linebacker Gary Brackett said.
"He's a game-changer. But his presence gives us a comfort level,
knowing he's going to be back there to clean up for us."

With Sanders in the lineup, the Colts became stingier and more
physical as Sanders played closer to the line of scrimmage.

Sanders received much of the credit for the turnaround, which
saw Indy cut its yards per carry average from 5.3 in 2006 to 3.8
this season.

"I think this year, I really played like I wanted to play,"
Sanders said. "I give a lot of credit to my teammates who helped
me stay consistent in practice and in games."

Also receiving votes were defensive back Antonio Cromartie of
San Diego with three; linebackers Mike Vrabel of New England and
DeMarcus Ware of Dallas (2); and cornerback Ronde Barber of Tampa
Bay, linebacker James Harrison of Pittsburgh, rookie linebacker
Patrick Willis of San Francisco, and end Mario Williams of Houston,
each with one vote.

Last year's winner was Miami defensive end Jason Taylor.

But the award was a surprise to some in the Colts' organization.

"To me, that's probably the biggest statement because the
national perception is that we're an offensive team," Dungy said.
"I thought for someone to win it on this team, it would take a
big, big impact just to be considered."

Sanders credits his success and his style to how he was taught
way back when.

"I would have to say it goes back to little league, peewee
football," he said. "Those are some of the first things they
teach you and that's something you remember as you grow up: stay
low, stay low. It helps me now being explosive in short areas,
because it's a combination of power, speed and quickness. You've
got to bring it all together, and then you can come from 10 or 15
yards deep to make the play."

Lots of them.