Remember the 2006 Indianapolis Colts?
Thanks primarily to Peyton Manning’s arm, the Colts started 9-0 despite giving up more than 20 points per game. They were Super Bowl favorites until their defense collapsed down the stretch and they finished the year 3-4.
Analysts attributed the team’s defensive struggles to the absence of safety Bob Sanders, who started only four games that season and missed six of the final seven. Sanders was the glue of the Colts defense, often called “The Eraser” by head coach Tony Dungy because of his ability to erase others’ mistakes on the field. Though the Colts made the playoffs easily, many questioned their ability to win the Super Bowl because of the sieve-like defense the team displayed during their lackluster finish.
In the playoffs, with Sanders back in the fold, the Colts were unstoppable. They sliced through Kansas City, Baltimore and New England on their way to the Super Bowl, where they handily dispatched that team from Chicago. A healthy Sanders was masterful, amassing 22 tackles and two interceptions in the playoffs. Without Sanders, the Colts were all offense. With him, they were world-beaters.
The Green Bay Packers may have found their Bob Sanders.
His name is Atari Bigby.
The Packers defense has been anything but consistent this season. In the season opener, the Packers picked off Bears quarterback Jay Cutler four times. In the next three games, they gave up a combined 78 points before allowing a combined three points to the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns the past two weeks.
No one expected Dom Capers’ 3-4 system to run flawlessly from the start, but we all expected better than what the Packers displayed in weeks three through five.
When the 2006 Colts lost their mojo down the stretch, it was mostly due to their failure to stop the run – something which Sanders, like Bigby, is key to doing.
There is no question the defense’s best performances have come with Bigby in the lineup.
The Bears game was impressive not only for the turnovers, but for the fact that the Packers contained running back Matt Forte.
Even though the Packers limited the Minnesota Vikings and Adrian Peterson to 63 yards in their first meeting, the defense is giving up an average of more than 40 more rushing yards per game without Bigby in the lineup. In the three games Bigby has played, the Packers opponents are averaging 74 rushing yards per game. In the three games he hasn’t played, the Packers opponents are averaging 121 rushing yards per game.
Like Sanders, Bigby’s impact isn’t felt just in the run game. Bigby’s presence on the field allows Nick Collins to play the ballhawking centerfield role he’s more comfortable in. It also keeps guys with questionable cover skills, like Jarret Bush and Derrick Martin, off the field.
The similarities between Bigby and Sanders don’t stop there. They are both 28 and sport serious dreadlocks. They are both undersized, physical hitters who can make plays on the ball in the right coverage. And, unfortunately they’re both injury prone – Bigby has played a full season only once, in 2007, and Sanders has missed 42 of 85 games in his career.
All this isn’t to say Bigby is the All-Pro-caliber player that Sanders is. He may not even be the player the Packers want at the position. The team will have an important decision to make when Bigby’s contract expires after the season, and they’ll have to do the same with guys like Aaron Kampman, Nick Collins, Chad Clifton and Jason Spitz, among others. It’s possible the Packers could let Bigby walk in favor of a younger, more dependable option.
But if current trends continue, Packers general manager Ted Thompson would be wise to take care of the Packers’ Eraser before he lets the ink dry on anyone else’s deal. The defense will be better off for it.