Sanders could miss up to six weeks with high ankle sprain

INDIANAPOLIS -- Tony Dungy doesn't doubt Bob Sanders will be back in the Colts lineup this season. He's just not sure how long Sanders will be out.

The 2007 defensive player of the year could miss up to six weeks after spraining his right ankle last weekend at Minnesota, and team officials are contemplating whether Sanders may need arthroscopic surgery on his knee, too.

"It's kind of similar to [receiver] Roy Hall's injury," Dungy said. "He had his knee scoped, too, so he's going to be out a while longer. If it's going to be two or three weeks, then it makes sense to get it scoped. But [defensive tackle] Keyunta Dawson had the same kind of thing and he told me he was going to practice today, so we're not really sure."

Team president Bill Polian was more definitive Tuesday night while taping a segment for his Saturday night television show on WISH-TV. Polian said Sanders would miss four to six weeks.

Dungy has been wary of establishing ironclad timetables since he told reporters that tight end Dallas Clark was expected to go on injured reserve after tearing his ACL during the 2006 season. Two days later, the prognosis changed and while Clark missed four games, he played in the season finale and had a prominent role in the Colts' Super Bowl run.

The latest injury continues a strange even-numbered-year hex for Sanders, who played in just six games during his rookie season in 2004 and four games in 2006. In odd-numbered years, Sanders has started 14 and 15 games, respectively.

Dungy wasn't even sure how Sanders was hurt at Minnesota. He left during the fourth quarter and hasn't been available to reporters since then.

"I'm still learning the extent of it myself," Dungy said. "I guess, whether it was the 'dreaded high ankle sprain,' I guess I found that out Monday night."

Losing one of the NFL's hardest hitters will certainly impact the Colts' struggling run defense.

Indy has already allowed Chicago rookie Matt Forte and Minnesota Pro Bowler Adrian Peterson to each rush for more than 100 yards, and the Colts rank 28th in the league against the run.

The likely replacement is second-year safety Melvin Bullitt, who made the team last year as an undrafted free agent. Bullitt finished with two tackles Sunday, but has often practiced with the starters.

"I feel like I'm prepared," Bullitt said. "It's always hard to replace a player like Bob, who was the defensive player of the year and, in my opinion, is the best safety in the league."

Sanders' injury is the latest setback for a team that has been ravaged by injuries all season.

Former league sacks champion Dwight Freeney missed all of training camp after sustaining a season-ending foot injury, which required surgery last November. Sanders, too, sat out training camp after having offseason shoulder surgery for the second straight year.

Then in July, two more starters were hurt. Two-time league MVP Peyton Manning had surgery to remove an infected bursa sac from his left knee, which kept him sidelined six weeks. Linebacker Tyjuan Hagler tore a pectoral muscle while lifting weights. Hagler is still on the physically unable to perform list.

It hasn't gotten any better.

Since August, the Colts lost Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday, Clark and projected starting right guard Mike Pollak with knee injuries. Saturday and Pollak haven't played since Aug. 24, while Clark missed the second half of the season opener and was held out of the Minnesota game.

Heck, even offensive line coach Howard Mudd is out after having knee surgery.

On Sunday, things got even worse. Besides Sanders, the Colts also lost left tackle Tony Ugoh with a groin injury.

While Ugoh isn't expected to play against Jacksonville, Saturday is and Clark could if he can stay healthy in practice this week.

"It's great, great. How are you feeling?" Clark joked Wednesday. "Today is a big day. I'm going to go out there and get hit around and see how it feels. It feels good, it feels stable, so today will tell a lot. Hopefully, I'll make it through without getting any more sore."

And the Colts believe they can get by temporarily without Sanders, their defensive leader, because they have a bye next week.

"With a guy like Bob, of course, there's going to be some dropoff," Freeney said. "Maybe you won't see someone make that spectacular play, but you've still got to make plays. When one guy goes down, another guy has to step up, and there have to be 11 guys swarming to the ball."