NEW YORK - Bob Sanders' impact on the vastly improved Indianapolis defense, not to mention his impact on opposing ball carriers, earned the Colts safety The Associated Press 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award Monday.
Sanders makes highlight films with his smashmouth style and knack for always being near the ball. His value as a leader - the Peyton Manning of the Colts' defense, if you will - was just as much a factor in Indianapolis having the third-ranked unit in the NFL and allowing just 262 points, a league low.
Yes, these Colts can play dominating defense, and Sanders is the main reason.
'One of the things we talked about when he first got here was how critical this position is in this defense,' said coach Tony Dungy, who has nicknamed Sanders 'The Eraser.'
'Donnie Shell went to five Pro Bowls, and John Lynch went to I don't even know how many Pro Bowls. You get asked to do a lot of things in this defense, and it's rare to find someone who can do those things.'
Sanders did enough to earn 31 votes from a nationwide panel of 50 media members who regularly cover the NFL. That was particularly impressive because it was a strong season for individual defensive performances.
Yet next closest in the balloting were Seattle end Patrick Kerney and Tennessee tackle Albert Haynesworth with four votes each.
Sanders was a huge factor in the Colts' surge to the Super Bowl title last year. He missed most of the regular season, got healthy for the playoffs, and suddenly teams couldn't run or pass effectively on Indy.
With Sanders in the lineup for 15 games this season, the Colts were superb defensively on their way to a 13-3 record and the AFC South crown.
Not that Sanders laid back in an attempt to stay healthy.
'This (the award) is a goal I set for myself every year and for it to come so fast is something I never expected,' Sanders said. 'It's exciting, it's an honor and I will cherish this moment forever.'
His teammates were celebrating right there next to him.
Indianapolis is typically regarded as an offensive juggernaut, and Sanders is the first Colts player to win the defensive award.
Plus, he did it in a season when the Colts lost their other key defender, Dwight Freeney, for the final seven games with a season-ending foot injury. Freeney was just one of a handful of starters who missed games, but Sanders remained the constant on defense.
'His presence makes us better,' linebacker Gary Brackett said. 'He's a game-changer. But his presence gives us a comfort level, knowing he's going to be back there to clean up for us.'
With Sanders in the lineup, the Colts became stingier and more physical as Sanders played closer to the line of scrimmage.
Sanders received much of the credit for the turnaround, which saw Indy cut its yards per carry average from 5.3 in 2006 to 3.8 this season.
'I think this year, I really played like I wanted to play,' Sanders said. 'I give a lot of credit to my teammates who helped me stay consistent in practice and in games.'
Also receiving votes were defensive back Antonio Cromartie of San Diego with three; linebackers Mike Vrabel of New England and DeMarcus Ware of Dallas (2); and cornerback Ronde Barber of Tampa Bay, linebacker James Harrison of Pittsburgh, rookie linebacker Patrick Willis of San Francisco, and end Mario Williams of Houston, each with one vote.
Last year's winner was Miami defensive end Jason Taylor.
But the award was a surprise to some in the Colts' organization.
'To me, that's probably the biggest statement because the national perception is that we're an offensive team,' Dungy said. 'I thought for someone to win it on this team, it would take a big, big impact just to be considered.'
Sanders credits his success and his style to how he was taught way back when.
'I would have to say it goes back to little league, peewee football,' he said. 'Those are some of the first things they teach you and that's something you remember as you grow up: stay low, stay low. It helps me now being explosive in short areas, because it's a combination of power, speed and quickness. You've got to bring it all together, and then you can come from 10 or 15 yards deep to make the play.'
Lots of them.