James Sanders was drafted by the Patriots in the 4th round (133rd overall) of the 2005 NFL Draft out of Fresno State. He was the second player the Pats took from Fresno State in that draft, along with starting left guard and fellow starter Logan Mankins. Sanders is a tenacious hitter and has the demeanor and build (5-foot-10, 215 pounds) one would usually find in a strong safety. But, given his lackluster 4.68-second 40-time and a scattered injury history, he slipped to the second day.
He spent his first two seasons primarily contributing on special teams and occasionally subbing in for injured players, picking up seven starts in his first 32 games. While Rodney Harrison was suspended for the first four games of this season for violating the league's substance abuse policy, Sanders started at strong safety.
Upon Harrison's return, Sanders supplanted longtime starter Eugene Wilson at free safety. Over the past four games at that position, he's recorded 31 tackles. In his 48 games so far, including 15 starts, he has 82 tackles, one sack, and two interceptions.
While those career numbers are pretty dismal, his statistics are typical of a safety not named Rodney Harrison in New England's defense.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
So far this millennium, the Patriots have made a living on defense by not allowing big plays and forcing the opposition to earn yards and sustain drives. They play their safeties very conservatively with the exception of the occasional blitz by Harrison. And they play an awful lot of Cover 2. You can expect this to continue on Sunday against the Colts' vertical passing attack.
The wrinkle comes when Indianapolis tries to run the ball. This season, New England's opponents have elected to play "keep away" with the Patriots by running the ball and controlling the clock. This is a sound strategy, but Belichick has trusted his talented and active front seven to contain the opposing team's running game (at least early on) and won every time. Last week, the Redskins were unable to get their ground attack started and fell into an early and insurmountable hole. So they were then were forced to throw the ball on virtually every down.
When the Patriots come out with seven in the box, Manning will audible to a run more often than not -- and Belichick knows it. If the Colts are able to have consistent and sustained success running the ball early, it will force an eighth man up to the line. That would be Harrison since he's bigger at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds and more capable in run support. He's also more of a liability in coverage and more comfortable playing close to the line of scrimmage anyway.
If that happens, the Patriots will likely switch to a Cover 3 scheme, with Sanders, Asante Samuel, and Ellis Hobbs each responsible for a deep third of the field and the linebackers tasked with covering the middle and edges. This will allow Manning to isolate Sanders deep -- who will be on Hobbs' side of the field, not Samuels' -- another advantage for Indy. And it will also open up the intermediate middle of the field where Bruschi can't cover as much ground as he used to and Adalius Thomas cannot match up on Dallas Clark, Marvin Harrison, Anthony Gonzalez, or Reggie Wayne. Another important factor is that it opens up the play-action passing game, and Sanders is susceptible to looking into the backfield and biting on the fake.
All of this assumes that New England does not jump out to a big, early lead. But, even if that happens and the Colts find themselves down 21-7 in the second quarter, they are unlikely to panic and start throwing the ball all over the field. That would play right into Belichick's hands. But they didn't panic when they were down early last week in Carolina and were struggling in the passing game.
The key is to force the Patriots into a situation where they cannot afford to isolate their lead-footed safeties -- and then turn that into something New England is not accustomed to giving up on defense ... big plays.