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Low-Key Sanders Leads High-Energy Defense

When he walked off the field last Sunday looking at a zero underneath "Vikings" on the Lambeau Field scoreboard, Packers defensive coordinator Bob Sanders would have been forgiven if a few demonstrative fist pumps had overridden his stoic, down-to-earth demeanor for a second or two. - More Packers-Panthers Game Center


When he walked off the field last Sunday looking at a zero underneath "Vikings" on the Lambeau Field scoreboard, Packers defensive coordinator Bob Sanders would have been forgiven if a few demonstrative fist pumps had overridden his stoic, down-to-earth demeanor for a second or two.

After all, in seven seasons as an NFL assistant, including the last three with the Packers, Sanders had never been part of a shutout. And the fact that it came less than a year after many fans and media were questioning whether the first-year coordinator was cut out to run an NFL defense clearly validated Head Coach Mike McCarthy's belief in him.

But even a momentary outburst like that, however positive and deserved, would have been too out-of-character for Sanders. Just as any headset throwing, clipboard breaking or foot stomping last year when some of those opponent scores at Lambeau read 34, 35 and 38 wouldn't have fit the way Sanders goes about his job.

Professional football must be played with emotion, but to Sanders, it need not be coached that way. Any leader, in sports or otherwise, is going to have his own style, and while Sanders' may not be overly dynamic, it has helped lead a defense now ranked in the league's top 10, a status few outside the organization foresaw at midseason last year.

"He's pretty even-keeled regardless of the situation," linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "He never gets too high or too low, and we respect that and I think we respond to that pretty well."

That was no more evident than last year, Sanders' first as a defensive coordinator after four seasons as Miami's linebackers coach (2001-04) and one as Green Bay's defensive ends coach (2005).

As 2006 began, the defense was plagued by communication breakdowns and explosive plays and at one point ranked last in the NFL. Then, after it appeared a turnaround was in the works, home losses to New England and the New York Jets by scores of 35-0 and 38-10, respectively, kept the defense mired at 29th in the league with a month to play.

But Sanders, whose controlled emotions shouldn't be mistaken for a lack of competitive fire, didn't give up on his players, and in turn they didn't give up on him. He publicly praised what the defensive players were doing well while demanding, and witnessing, the hard work to fix what they weren't.

Facing as much heat, if not more, than McCarthy himself for the team's 4-8 record in early December, Sanders took his head coach's lead and kept believing in what the coaching staff was teaching.

"The only thing you can do is just try to stay the course," Sanders said. "Mike talks about that all the time. The only thing we tried to do was stay the course. Our guys had seen it work before and had been a part of it working, so it was just a matter of staying with our fundamentals and what we believed in, and the guys hung in there with us."

Perhaps if players had been called out publicly for their mistakes, or felt the coaching staff was absolving itself of blame, they would have jumped ship. But that's not how Sanders handled the rough patches, in the meeting rooms or in front of the media, and the group remained united.

During the team's four-game winning streak to close the 2006 season, the defense rose from 29th to 12th in the league rankings. This year it has held opponents to 16 points or less in six of nine games, highlighted by the 34-0 shutout of Minnesota last week.

"Everybody believed in the scheme from Day 1," cornerback Al Harris said. "The scheme works. It's a proven scheme.

"That early thing last year was more on us as a unit getting familiar with each other than it was on Bob. Because he's not doing anything differently than he did last year. We're running the same scheme, but all the guys are back. We're used to each other. We're just going out and playing hard."

Talk to enough players in the locker room, and many of them will discuss how much they respect Sanders as a person as well as a coach. They know he cares about them off the field as well as on. They'll also use the same words to describe Sanders' work ethic and approach to game preparation. Meticulous. Detailed. Thorough.

Players will recall how Sanders finds plays on film that offenses haven't run for a couple of years, and he'll prepare his team for them, and the opponent will run them in that Sunday's game.

All of that has led to a level of trust in the defensive leader when it comes to the game plan, which several players were quick to praise after they held Minnesota rookie sensation Adrian Peterson to 45 yards rushing one week after he set an NFL single-game record with 296 yards.

"We trust him 100 percent what he thinks will work each game," Hawk said. "He's been in this league for a while doing good things. He's going to put us in position to make plays, and that's why we're excited to come in and see what we're going to do each week."

The defense was excited to put its plan against Peterson into motion, and it showed when linebacker Brady Poppinga and safety Atari Bigby stuffed Peterson for no gain on third-and-1 on the game's first series. That stop set the tone for a stellar day.

"I was very confident in the plan," Harris said. "I think he took a lot of input from the players, which good defensive coordinators do.

"Bob is a very humble gentleman, a God-fearing man. He's a family guy, you can tell that about him. But honestly he's not getting the credit as a coordinator I think he should be getting. He's playing a really good chess match right now as far as coordinating. He's putting guys in the right spot. He's outplaying the offensive coordinators in the chess match."

{sportsad300}The players' faith in Sanders has contributed to, or perhaps evolved into, faith in one another on the field. And that's been the most rewarding thing for Sanders to see on a weekly basis.

"I think that's one of the reasons our play has picked up a little bit -- there is a lot of trust out there," Sanders said. "When something has happened, there's been somebody there that's playing physical and fast and taken up the slack for us a little bit there. I think that's a tremendous part of what's happening is guys do trust one another."

Sanders has shied away from basking in the glory of the shutdown of Peterson and the Vikings. He doesn't hesitate to credit the offense for holding the ball more than 40 minutes or to recognize the special teams contributions to field position that helped produce the big win.

But while his understated review of the accomplishment is in tune with his personality, it also reveals the way he wants to reflect upon it, and the mindset with which he wants his players to view it.

To Sanders, the shutout shouldn't be the culmination of what the defense has been building and working toward since that league-worst ranking a year ago. It needs to be another building block unto itself.

"It shows us what we're capable of doing," defensive end Cullen Jenkins said. "I don't think that's something we did as far as making a statement to try to show everybody else. I think that was a statement for ourselves to prove what we can do and kind of set the bar for what we need to do for the rest of the year."

The message, assuredly delivered in Sanders' calm, consistent style, appears to be getting through.

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