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By MICHAEL MAROT, AP Sports Writer
October 6, 2005
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Mike Doss spent his first two NFL seasons learning the Indianapolis Colts defense. Bob Sanders spent most of last year trying to stay healthy.
Now that they're working together, the Colts have a knockout pair of safeties.
``People call them miniature linebackers, big hitters,'' linebacker David Thornton said. ``Whatever you call them, you know you can expect them to come down in the box and be aggressive.''
The Colts (4-0) have seemingly found a perfect combination in Sanders and Doss.
Both are smallish by NFL standards. Sanders is listed at 5-foot-8, 206 pounds, Doss is 5-10 and 207. They fit in perfectly on a defense that relies more on speed than brawn.
Both are finally emerging as bona fide playmakers, and both embrace their favorite part of the game -- contact.
``You want to have those big hits because it makes guys on the other side feel that those guys are big-hitters,'' Sanders said. ``It's exciting to play with a group of guys that has the same attitude I do.''
These days, Sanders and Doss have been all smiles, an expression rarely seen in their corner of the locker room.
Usually, the secondary drew the most criticism because players could not stay healthy, failed to produce turnovers and often times struggled to cover receivers.
Not any more.
The unusual pairing of Doss and Sanders -- two natural strong safeties rather than using a prototypical tall, fluid defender at free safety -- has given the Colts' a one-two punch that is making people forget the critics' contention that the Colts defense was ``soft.''
Doss and Sanders take pride in the punishing blows that occasionally make opponents shake their head, gasp for air or limp off the field.
The changes were evident Sunday at Tennessee. On one play, Sanders grabbed an airborne Titans receiver and tossed him hard to the ground, jarring the ball loose and then alertly made his first career interception while on his knees. Later, he staggered another Titans player with a straight-on shot, knocking the runner backward.
It was a performance that made Doss envious.
``It's playing aggressive,'' Doss said. ``You definitely feed off that, and it's contagious.''
In college, the two were rivals and often competed for the title of Big Ten's hardest hitter.
Both were first-team all-conference selections in 2002, but Doss claimed the two biggest prizes that year -- winning a national championship at Ohio State and earning the Big Ten's defensive player of the year award.
Sanders settled for a share of the Big Ten title and an appearance in the Orange Bowl with Iowa.
Three years later, they are working toward the same goals.
``They're making plays, reading their keys, doing what the defense is designed to do and not doing anything on their own,'' cornerback Nick Harper said. ``In the past, sometimes, we had guys doing things on their own.''
The secondary has also benefited from continuity.
A year ago, the Colts were changing starters almost every week. Doss missed six games with injuries. Sanders missed all of training camp and 10 games because of foot and knee injuries.
This season, with Sanders healthy and Doss starting the last three weeks, they have been heavy hitters. Sanders is second on the team with 35 tackles, while Doss is fifth with 22 despite missing one game because of a league-imposed suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.
Teammates like what they're seeing.
``It definitely intimidates opponents,'' Thornton said. ``I don't hear opponents talk too much, but if you look at the film, you've got to see those punishing hits and it can be a little intimidating. This is the identity of our defense.''