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Sanders has brought hard hits back to Colts' defense

INDIANAPOLIS -- You've heard it before, this notion that a certain Pro Bowl safety brings a presence to his defense -- an undeniable, undefinable, bone-jarring je ne sais quoi that inspires teammates and intimidates opponents.

If he can just bounce back from a right knee injury and take the field Sunday in the AFC Championship game, it could be the difference between the Indianapolis Colts or the New England Patriots going to the Super Bowl.

While this is an accurate description of Patriots strong safety Rodney Harrison, he's not the hard hitter in question. It's Colts third-year free safety Bob Sanders, who is to the Indianapolis defense what Harrison is to New England's, maybe more. At 5 feet 8 inches, 206 pounds (a generous listing), Sanders is the Colts' most physical player and the heartbeat of their defense.

"Rodney is such an inspirational player," said Colts coach Tony Dungy. "He's a smart player and he brings that physical, tough presence. I do think Bob does a lot of that for us. And [he] seems to lift the play of the other guys around him. That probably is a pretty good comparison.

"He's got a lot of pop in his body. He's a strong hitter. But probably more than anything else, I think he just loves to play the game. 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."

Never has that been more apparent than in the playoffs as the Colts' defense, which allowed a league-worst 173 rushing yards per game during the regular season, has gone from porous to impregnable. Indianapolis has allowed one touchdown in eight quarters of playoff football and is surrendering just 185 total yards per game, 147.2 fewer than the regular season, and in the starkest turnaround, only 63.5 yards on the ground.

It's not a coincidence that the defensive revival coincides with Sanders playing back-to-back games for the first time since the first two games of the season against the Giants and the Texans.

"Bob . . . brings a lot of presence," said Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney. "A lot of receivers know that when Bob is coming down, he's going to try to knock himself out or you out. That's what it comes down to. The same thing with running backs.

"Having a guy like that and, as far as our defense is concerned, having an eighth man in the box and having him be that eighth man, like a linebacker, it's very important, especially for those teams that like to scheme to run to the eighth guy. So instead of having a fourth-string guy out there or whatever missing a tackle, you have Bob out there trying to knock somebody out."

It was after the Texans game Sept. 17 that Sanders, who made his first Pro Bowl last season after recording 118 tackles, had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. He has struggled to stay in the lineup since.

He played in only two more regular-season games, one of which was the 27-20 victory over the Patriots at Gillette Stadium Nov. 5. In that game, Sanders had 11 tackles and his only interception of the regular season.

"Bob Sanders is one of the best in the game," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. "I think he's very consistent. He's very tough. He's physical. He tackles well. You don't ever see him miss tackles. He's always in the right spot."

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? If Brady had been saying that about Harrison, nobody would have blinked.

"He's definitely a great player and has made a lot of plays in this league and helped his team in many ways," said Sanders of Harrison. "So you know that's definitely a compliment for people to compare us and say we play alike."

But unlike Harrison, who is listed as doubtful for Sunday's game, Sanders is as healthy as he's been all season.

"I just had to be patient," he said. "Patience is the main thing and I think I was able to be patient and now that I've worked myself back in, I'm comfortable and I feel good."

Sanders, who played his college football at the University of Iowa under Bill Belichick disciple Kirk Ferentz, refuses to take credit for the Colts' run-defense renaissance.

"One guy can't really come in and change things around," said Sanders. "We have the same personnel that we had all season. I just think it's all about attitude and being passionate about it and wanting to win."

The numbers back up Sanders's assertion that no one can do it alone. In the four games he played during the regular season, Indianapolis still allowed an average of 165.3 rushing yards.

But Freeney said the team has taken on a serious attitude adjustment in the playoffs, taking on the demeanor of No. 21, the free safety who makes ball carriers pay the price every time he brings them down.

"It's a mentality, an attitude, whatever you want to call it," said Freeney. "That's how you're supposed to play defense, with an energy. You go out there to prove a point every snap. I'm not going to say in the regular season we didn't have that. It's just I know we have that now and we're going out there playing how we're supposed to play."

The Bob Sanders way.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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