Colts need Sanders to come up big again

The human personification of the proverbial brick outhouse, albeit festooned in dreadlocks, Bob Sanders communicates with an economy of syllables and navigates the gridiron with a frugality of motion.

So while the Indianapolis Colts get few big words from their free safety, they get plenty of big hits. At least when the three-year veteran, who missed 12 games during the regular season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in September, is on the field.

And that's where he plans to be for Saturday's divisional round playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens.

"My knee has responded pretty well after (the team's wild-card victory over Kansas City last Saturday)," Sanders said earlier this week as the Colts began preparations for what figures to be a physical matchup. "So I think I'm good to go."

That is good news for a maligned Indianapolis defense that is going to have to get after the Baltimore ground game, specifically tailback Jamal Lewis, if the Colts are to have a chance of upsetting the Ravens and advancing to the AFC Championship Game. At just 5-feet-8, Sanders is the NFL's most vertically challenged defender. But when he steps up big in run support, as he did last week, people don't talk about his physical dimensions, but rather the devastation he doles out.

Pound for pound, the former Iowa standout might be the NFL's biggest hitter. And when his well-sculpted 206 pounds were out of the lineup this season, the Colts' run defense was pounded by just about every opponent it faced.

In the 12 games that the Colts played without Sanders, who underwent surgery following a Sept. 17 contest against Houston, the Indianapolis defense surrendered 175.6 rushing yards per outing and 5.27 yards per carry. With Sanders in the lineup for five games, including last Saturday's wild-card victory, Indianapolis gave up an average of 141.0 yards on the ground and 5.18 yards per attempt.

The latter numbers still aren't acceptable and are clearly skewed by last week's effort in which the Chiefs managed only 44 yards on 17 carries. Still, there is no doubt Sanders makes a difference, from a schematic and results standpoint, when he is in the Indianapolis lineup.

"He's only one player," said weakside linebacker Cato June when asked about Sanders' significance to the Colts' defense. "And for us to play the way we did against the Chiefs, to just totally shut down the run the way we haven't done it all year, well, it takes all 11 of us, not just one guy. But having him out there, yeah, it definitely makes us a lot better."

A second-round choice in the 2004 draft, Sanders became a full-time starter in 2005, and earned Pro Bowl honors, amassing 118 tackles. Watch the mighty mite free safety through binoculars is like viewing an old World War II submarine movie as he knifes through would-be blockers, seeks out his victim and hits low and hard like a torpedo. Sanders possesses terrific football instincts but also plays with superior technique. He isn't always a form tackler, but doesn't miss often, and uses his strong shoulders and upper body to knock the underpinnings from ball carriers.

With him out of the lineup, Indianapolis had seven games in which it surrendered 150 or more rushing yards, including the infamous 375-yard performance by Jacksonville on Dec. 10. Even with Sanders on the field, the Colts are too generous, but opponents ran for 150-plus yards in just two of his five appearances.

"I don't think just having me back is the whole answer," said Sanders, who will appear in consecutive games for the first time since the first two weeks of the season. "We've got to tighten up in a lot of areas. But I know that, if I'm right, I can make a difference out there."

But just how much difference can Sanders really make? His presence on the field is difficult to quantify but, in terms of flexibility, he means a lot to the Indianapolis game plan. In last week's victory, the Colts didn't deploy Sanders in the box as much as Kansas City anticipated, choosing instead to press the line of scrimmage with a cornerback. But that wrinkle, combined with the use of former starting middle linebacker Rob Morris on the strongside and the huge advantage in quickness by the Indianapolis front four, made a remarkable difference.

Sanders came up from his spot in the Cover 2 the Colts religiously deploy to make three stops versus the run. He also demonstrated range in the secondary with one interception and one pass defensed. Against Lewis this week, it's more likely that Sanders will be aligned closer to the line of scrimmage. The Ravens' star isn't as much a downhill runner as Johnson was for the Chiefs, but he is a back you want to hit early before he can gather momentum.

Look for a few collisions between Lewis and Sanders, the brutish runner and fearless hitter, on Saturday evening. The Colts certainly need Sanders to be around the ball and buzzing around Lewis' legs. They need their little man to come up big for them again.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.