Sanders began to build his hard-hitting, all-out reputation in 2005, when he helped the Colts to a defensive resurgence and was selected for the Pro Bowl in just his second NFL season.
But it was when Sanders missed all but four games in 2006 that the Colts realized how much they needed him. The Colts were 3-1 in games that Sanders played in, but the defense finished the season as the worst in the NFL against the run and allowed 360 points, 23rd-best in the league.
Sanders returned to the Colts lineup for the playoffs, however, and transformed the team's moribund defense into a different unit. Sanders had 22 tackles, defended four passes and had two interceptions as the team that allowed 173 yards per game during the regular season allowed only 83 per game in its run to the Super Bowl XLI title.
Sanders takes on Warrick Dunn
This season, with Sanders healthy for 15 games, the Colts showed that 2005 was no fluke. Indianapolis allowed a league-low 262 points this season, and improved to the 15th-best team in the league against the run at 106.9 yards per game. The Colts were third-best in overall yards allowed.
That's an improvement of over a touchdown in points allowed. More importantly, the Colts are 19-4 in the last 23 games Sanders has played for the Colts. That's a winning percentage of 83 percent.
In Sanders' four-year career, the Colts ranked 29th in the league in overall defense in 2004, when Sanders missed all but six games. When he was healthy for 14 games in 2005, the Colts improved to 11th in overall.
In 2006, with Sanders on the sidelines for all but four games, the Colts ranked 21st overall. In 2007, with Sanders healthy for 15 games, the Colts were third overall.
That's a big impact for a player that stands just 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighs 206 pounds. The two players Sanders beat out for the Defensive Player of the Year award — Patrick Kerney of the Seahawks and Albert Haynesworth of the Titans — stand 6-5 and 6-6 and 272 and 320 pounds, respectively.
But, as the saying goes, it's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog. Recent history has showed that he's capable of changing the character of his unit simply by stepping onto the field.
Sanders received 31 of 50 votes to win the award, while Kerney and Haynesworth were distant runners-up with four votes apiece. That's a difference nearly as big as the one Sanders makes.