So, what does this mean for the Colts? Plenty.
What's the biggest impact of Sanders' return?
His mere presence adds a lot to an already solid defense. Sanders is a vocal player, and it's obvious the defense is energized when he's on the field.
The benefit of his absence is that the defense was forced to establish its identity without him. Outside of the Miami game, the defense has been solid. Defensive Coordinator Larry Coyer has obviously focused on fundamentals as the Colts are tackling better than they have in recent history.
Now that Sanders is back, the Colts defense gains a game changing performer. Sanders' style of play is similar to that of Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu. Sanders is a gifted pass defender, and despite his small size, he is tremendous in run support.
Without Sanders, the Colts have the seventh ranked defense in yards allowed and rank an impressive second in points allowed. Adding the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year to this squad has to have Coyer excited.
How should Coyer use Sanders?
Expect Sanders to be involved in all aspects of Coyer's aggressive defense. I remember a game during the 2007 season against the Titans when Sanders was asked to blitz Vince Young at times. Sanders recorded 2.5 sacks in that game. It was one of the few times Tony Dungy used someone other than the lineman to put pressure on the quarterback.
Imagine Sanders in Coyer's blitzing defense.
Sanders can be used to put pressure on the quarterback. He's got natural pass rushing ability and offenses will have to account for him. He could also be used as a blitzing decoy.
By lining him up on one side, and blitzing a linebacker from the other, offenses will have a tough time setting the correct pass blocking schemes. Sanders' presence will add to the chess match that the Colts' defense plays against their opponent.
How can the Colts keep Sanders healthy?
I've mentioned this is some discussions with other Colts' fans, but the best way to preserve Sanders for the regular season and beyond is to take a page from the Atlanta Falcons.
In 2008, the Falcons came up with a plan to keep their defensive end John Abraham fresh and healthy. Atlanta rotated Abraham in and out of the lineup. When Abraham played, he was fresh and stayed healthy. The result was a season with 16.5 sacks.
The luxury the Colts have is that Sanders' reserve, Melvin Bullitt, is a very good player. Bullitt is able to provide run support and is a solid pass defender. By limiting the number of plays Sanders is on the field, the Colts may be able to preserve him for when they need him the most, January and, hopefully, into February.
Also, it may not be a bad idea at times to plays Sanders and Bullitt together with fellow safety Antoine Bethea. Last year, the Colts were prone to give up big plays against draw plays on second and third and long. With three run stuffing quality players on the field, the Colts could prevent such plays from happening.
In the end, I will admit I was someone who thought Sanders was commodity we could no longer afford to keep, not just because of his proneness to injury, but because we knew we had a capable replacement in Bullitt.
However, now that he's back, I am excited about what he adds to a talented unit. If the defense can take another step with Sanders, then 2009 may turn out to be a very special season.