After Sanders was crowned as the best defensive player in the NFL for 2007, Eric Hartz wrote a piece for ColtPower called The Sanders Effect, which delved into why Sanders is so important to the team and the obvious impact he had on them in 2006, as well as 2007 — the first year he was fully healthy.
A lot of the stats in Eric's article speak for themselves, but they may be giving Sanders too much credit. The Colts are, after all, 20-5 without Sanders (.800 winning percentage) and 39-9 with him (.813 winning percentage), so they've been extremely successful whether he's in the lineup or not.
Sanders has had a tremendous effect on the Colts' defense
AP/David J. Phillip
However, the team's overall success is not what seems to be up for debate in the wake of Sanders' injury. The key issue is the overall performance of the defense — particularly the run defense — when No. 21 is not in the game.
In 2006, Sanders missed 12 games and the Colts were, to be blunt, dreadful on defense, especially against the run. They ranked 22nd overall (332 yards per game), 2nd against the pass (159), and 32nd against the run (173, which was 25 yards per game worse than the 31st ranked team), and 23rd in points allowed per game (22.5). Since teams knew that they would be able to run the ball against the Colts, that skews the pass ranking at least a little bit, but that is still a terrible set of statistics.
With Sanders healthy for 15 games in 2007, those rankings boosted to 3rd in overall yards allowed (280), 2nd in passing (173), 15th in rushing (107), and first in points allowed (16.4).
Sanders was certainly a big part of that transformation and his contributions to the defense as a whole cannot be overlooked.
But, it's also important to note that in 2006, Sanders was replaced by then-rookie Antoine Bethea, who was still getting his bearings and just happened to be responsible for filling the shoes of the biggest impact player on defense. Also, then-cornerbacks Jason David and Nick Harper are far less formidable run defenders than Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden. In addition, Jackson was playing free safety and, even though he's very adept at filling in against the run for a cornerback, he's about average, or below average, for a safety.
Top it all off with the fact that the Colts didn't acquire Anthony McFarland until November and it took him a little while to get acclimated, and you get a little closer to an accurate reading of where the defense would have performed without Sanders in 2007.
Taking a look at the 2008 stats so far with Sanders, the Colts are 28th against the run (181 yards per game), 4th against the pass (128), 16th overall (309), and 19th in points allowed (22.0). Those numbers are close to the 2006 stats, but, having faced two consecutive teams with solid running attacks and pedestrian passing attacks, those results are a little skewed as well and should normalize by the end of the season.
Also, when the offense is fully healthy and starts to sustain longer drives, score more points, and put pressure on the opposing team's offense, the numbers will improve as well. Now that Bethea has more experience under his belt and since Bullitt is a second-year player that is not as green as Bethea was, the transition to life without Sanders for the next month or so should be easier.
One other factor that needs to be taken into account is Ed Johnson. He was the only different player through the middle of the defense between 2006 and 2008. His work tying up blockers and disrupting the backfield was important to the turnaround against the run as well.
Melvin Bullitt has some big shoes to try to fill
It will be impossible to fully replace a player of Sanders' ability and impact, but, given the defense the Colts deploy and the type of player that Bullitt is, the results should not be too reminiscent of 2006.
Although Bullitt is not anywhere near the player that Sanders is in run support, he is actually as good, if not a little better in coverage. With teams like New England, Green Bay, and Houston coming up — although Baltimore, Jacksonville, and Tennessee are on the schedule as well — stopping the run was going to become less of a focus.
The three teams at the beginning of the schedule — finishing with the Jaguars on Sunday — were bound to cause a spike in the run defense totals. Once that storm has been weathered, the Colts will get a bye, which will give Bullitt an opportunity to get his bearings, then Houston and Green Bay (more passing teams than running teams) with the Ravens sandwiched between.
As a defensive system, Dungy's scheme places more than average importance on a defender knowing his responsibilities and where he should be at a given time. At this point, Bullitt knows the system and knows where he should be.
That should be a calming influence on the defense as a whole, with the loss of Johnson and Sanders in consecutive weeks, as the other players on defense know that Bullitt will at least be where he's supposed to be at any given time.
Sanders had shown a bit of a tendency to freelance during the first two games and that hurt — particularly the bad angle he took on on Matt Forte's 50-yard touchdown run in Week 1.
All of this, though, is not meant to diminish what Sanders means to this defense. The biggest positive that Sanders brings to the defense is his attitude, his big hitting mentality, and his enthusiasm.
As mentioned earlier, Sanders is the Peyton Manning of the defense. Against the Vikings in Week 2, everyone turned to Manning when the offense needed to score. On defense, everyone turns to Sanders when they need to make a play or make a crucial stop. That special something is intangible and cannot be replaced.
It is, however, up to Gary Brackett as the captain of the defense to take on this role. If he cannot step into that void, then the Colts defense will have suffered a significant loss for the next 4-6 weeks.