INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -Bob Sanders learned tackling fundamentals at an early age. Stay low, get leverage and drive through opponents.
It would have helped if somebody had him take Health 101, too.
The Indianapolis Colts' safety, better known as the team's missile launcher, entered this season with dueling reputations as one of the league's toughest hitters and most injury-prone stars. But he's finally figured out how to survive a full NFL season.
``Sometimes you can't prevent injuries from happening,'' said Sanders, a front-runner for the league's defensive player of the year award. ``One thing I've learned to do this year, though, is practice better. You come in as a young guy, and you want to be aggressive and prove yourself to everybody.''
Those in Indianapolis know how valuable Sanders is to this defense.
The Colts (13-3) rewarded him last week with a $37.5 million contract that makes him the highest-paid safety in football. Fans became so enamored with Sanders' style, and frustrated by his predilection for getting hurt, they often joked coach Tony Dungy should only play him during the playoffs when it matters most.
And throughout Sanders' first three NFL seasons, there was reason to be concerned.
Leading up to the 2004 NFL draft, some scouts contended Sanders was too small, at 5-foot-8, 206 pounds, to hold up against the NFL's big bodies with his relentless style. After missing 24 of his first 48 NFL games because of various injuries, the Colts were worried, too.
So they asked Sanders to make some subtle changes.
They gave him an extra off-day each week at practice. He was held out of contact drills for much of training camp to recover from offseason shoulder surgery, and then the coaches asked him to do the most impractical thing of all: Take it easy on his teammates.
It's been the perfect remedy.
``I've learned one thing this year, to keep myself under control and be in great position (at practice), not just bang around in there,'' Sanders said. ``The banging wears you down and things happen, so you don't feel as well as you want to. It has helped.''
When healthy, Sanders is one of the league's most versatile and feared players.
This year, he's spent more time inching closer to the line of scrimmage as a fourth linebacker while producing career-high numbers across the board - 132 tackles, 74 solos, 3 1/2 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
He's also had a bevy of memorable moments, including an early flurry Sunday against Tennessee. At one point, Sanders tossed 249-pound tight end Bo Scaife to the turf like a rag doll. Later, he zoned in on Vince Young's left leg so fast defensive end Josh Thomas was shocked. On the next play, Sanders was in the end zone trying to break up a deep pass from Young.
Those plays are one reason Sanders is going back to the Pro Bowl.
Yet, the 26-year-old Pennsylvania native, nicknamed ``The Eraser'' by coach Tony Dungy because he covers up other players' mistakes, is more satisfied with another stat: Playing in a career-high 15 games.
``It shows me I can do it, that I can make it through a whole season because a lot of people questioned whether I could stay healthy,'' he said.
Indy needed Sanders more than ever this season when three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney went down with a season-ending foot injury in mid-November.
The loss of Freeney turned Sanders into the unquestioned leader of a defense that finished the regular-season ranked No. 3 overall, No. 2 against the pass and No. 1 in points allowed.
So Dungy wasn't surprised when the accolades started pouring in.
``When you think of a defensive player of the year, you usually think about someone who really is a dominant player, who makes big plays and is a game changer. You don't usually think of it being a secondary guy,'' Dungy said last week. ``Occasionally it is, but you think of guys like Lawrence Taylor and Mike Singletary. Bob has definitely been a game-changer for us.''
Sanders proved that last season in the playoffs.
The Colts were ranked as the league's worst run defense when Sanders missed 12 of 16 games. But when he returned for the postseason, opponents couldn't get free and Indy wound up winning the Super Bowl.
Now Sanders believes he's healthy enough to do it all again.
``The way I am, I'm always going to play aggressive and fast,'' he said. ``That's me, that's my mentality, that's how I play and that's how I'll always play.''

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