However undersized at 5-foot-8, 200-pounds, two-time All-Pro and 2007 Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders' shadow looms over the better part of the Indianapolis Colts' defensive backfield.
It has partially obscured fellow safety Antoine Bethea's play since the Colts drafted the former Denbigh High and Howard star in the sixth round in 2006. With Sanders' sidelined for all but a fraction of 2009, Bethea topped the 100-tackle plateau for the third time (120) in four years.
Consider him out from under the Sanders eclipse.
Bethea was good before first-year defensive coordinator Larry Coyer arrived this season. In Coyer's attacking scheme, he's even better. He earned a second Pro Bowl selection — his first coming in 2007 as an injury replacement — though Bethea still doesn't enjoy the same widespread recognition as counterparts such as Sanders, Ed Reed, Darren Sharper and Troy Polamalu.
"He's quick, and God gave him a real quick mind," Coyer said. "He can dissect just like that. That separates him from other guys. ... I saw it from the day I walked in. He's a leader. He had already assumed that role a year ago. As far as this year, he was in the same role. He just walked in and continued to do that, and he's upgraded his game a whole bunch."
Bethea got a taste of life without Sanders in 2008, when injuries limited him to six games. This season, Sanders was on the field even less. He sustained a torn biceps tendon and went on injured reserve having appeared in just two contests.
"Just the style of ball that he plays makes you want to up your ante as a player," Bethea said of Sanders. "He plays with a lot of energy, a lot of aggression, so as a safety playing next to him you want to go out there and do the same.
"With Bob being the oldest guy in the room and with him going down, of course I had to step up a little bit. As far as a leadership role, that's not always talking. That could be done in your play, just letting the young guys see how it's done, and letting them follow you."
With Bethea's help, the Colts' ranked eighth in the NFL in scoring defense (19.2 points per game). He intercepted a team-best four passes and forced two fumbles.
The last two seasons combined Bethea has totaled 246 tackles, pacing the Colts both years.
"He's one of those guys that has great anticipation," Colts cornerback Kelvin Hayden said. "He has great instincts. He gets to the ball fast and when he gets there he makes things happen. He's one of those players that can change a ball game. At the same time, as a corner, knowing you have a guy back there of his caliber makes your job much easier."
Added Bethea: "Coach Coyer has switched some of the things up and I'm able to play in the box a little more this year and getting more into the action. I think I've done a better job of coming in and filling up well, and just being more physical as a safety… From my rookie year, I feel as though I've matured a lot, become a better football player. I want to become one of the best DBs in the game."
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