It might be overstating the case to say safety Bob Sanders makes all the difference in the Indianapolis Colts run defense, especially when the opposing team has averaged 167 yards rushing in the three games he has played this season.
Nonetheless, after missing five consecutive games with ankle and knee injuries, Sanders is back in his usual role in the Colts defense -- a strong safety who plays like a linebacker -- recklessly throwing his compact body at running backs and playing larger than his 5-foot-8, 206-pound body would seem to allow.
"He's a screaming missile," said running back Mewelde Moore.
"A splash-play guy," said left tackle Max Starks.
"He sparks their entire defense," fullback Carey Davis said. "When he's making plays, that whole defense gets energized and they want to make plays."
After allowing an average of 199 yards rushing in their first three games, the Colts have, uh, tightened their run defense, reducing that average to a mere 110.2 yards per game in their past five outings. Granted, that is 40 yards more per game than the 70.1-yard average allowed by the Steelers, who have the NFL's third-ranked rush defense.
But it is a marked improvement for the Colts, whose smallish, athletic defense is built to rush the passer, not stop the run. And it might be a necessity against the Steelers, even though two-time Pro Bowl running back Willie Parker will not play because of a shoulder injury. He will be replaced by Mewelde Moore, who averaged 101 yards rushing in three previous starts for Parker.
"When it's normally the back and him one-on-one, he always comes up with the tackle," said quarterback Byron Leftwich, who used to face Sanders twice a year in Jacksonville. "One way or another, he always finds a way to get that guy down. I have seen a lot of times when it's been him and the back, him and Maurice Jones-Drew, him and Fred Taylor with 20 yards of open room, and he finds ways to make open tackles."
How important is Sanders to the Colts defense?
On a team that features defensive end Dwight Freeney -- one of the league's most disruptive players -- he became the first Colts defender to be named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year last year.
"He is important, like anyone else," Colts coach Tony Dungy said of Sanders, who played at Erie Cathedral Prep High School and still resides in Erie. "He can chase a lot of things down. Some of the problems that we had earlier in the season were due to more than just him being out of the lineup."
Part of the problem is that the Colts are small in the front line. Their tackles -- rookie Eric Foster (6-2, 265) and Keyunta Dawson (6-3, 254) -- are a few hamburgers removed from some of the other 340-pound-plus tackles the Steelers have faced this season, such as Cleveland's Shaun Rogers and Baltimore's Haloti Ngata.
Sanders plays near the line of scrimmage in the 4-3 defense, acting like an extra linebacker and being asked to make a lot of solo tackles.
"He's like another linebacker on the field," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "He's not going to the Pro Bowl because of his interceptions. He's going because he breaks guys in half."
Gerry Dulac can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .