"You've got to change, not just for safeties, but for every position," Wannstedt agrees. "We tell our linebackers the same thing."
Stripped of their usual tactics, defenders are reduced to "just trying to put a different-colored jersey in a spot he may want to think about cutting back to," says the Bears' Douglass.
After Sanders ran for touchdowns of 35 and 39 yards on a 131-yard day against the New England Patriots on Sept. 25, safety Harlon Barnett of the Pats said, "I'm not embarrassed about what happened. I thought I did pretty good. I got in front of him twice." Then Barnett added, "I just didn't stay there."
The Bears, having given up 167 yards to Sanders on Oct. 23, found a way to deal with him in their second game, on Nov. 20. Chicago changed its offensive game plan with Sanders in mind. To keep Sanders off the field, the Bears downshifted to a more plodding attack than usual, smothered Detroit in time of possession—44:12 to 15:48—and thus appeared to have had a spectacular defensive day against Sanders, limiting him to 42 yards on 11 carries in a 20-10 Chicago win.
"When you're trying to stop a Hall of Fame player, the best place for him to be is off the field," says Wannstedt. "The best defense we had was our offense."
Giving Sanders his customary number of carries is disaster for a defense. Let him carry 30 times, "and you may stop him 27 times," says Armstrong, "and the other three times he goes for 155 yards on you." On Nov. 13, Tampa Bay held Sanders to 37 yards in the first half and then gave up 200 to him in the second.
Going into the Lions' game against Buffalo, Sanders was on pace to become only the third player in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season (O.J. Simpson and Eric Dickerson were the first two). But on Thanksgiving his quest was sacrificed to the cause of Detroit's struggle to make the playoffs. The Lions, expecting Buffalo to overcommit in an effort to stop Sanders, had devised a pass-saturated game plan. The Bills limited Sanders to 45 yards on 19 carries, but he did score a touchdown on a four-yard run that began with a stunning stop-and-go. And while the Buffalo defenders met Sanders with an eight-man front, Detroit quarterback Dave Krieg threw over them for 351 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-21 Lion victory.
On the second play of the game Sanders took a handoff and the Bills' defense engulfed him. He stepped into the line and then whirled and flipped a flea-flicker to Krieg, who connected easily with wideout Herman Moore for a 51-yard touchdown. How did Krieg account for his remarkable performance? It was, he said afterward, "because of Barry Sanders."
More precisely, fear of Barry Sanders. Now, with the Sanders-as-decoy game plan exposed, the Lions will once again rely heavily on Sanders himself for the final four games of the season. And so there will be more sleepless nights for defenders, the cold fear of being made to look bad.
"He makes you miss so bad, you kind of look up in the stands and wonder if anybody's looking at you," says Atlanta cornerback D.J. Johnson. "You've got 60,000 people in there, and you wonder if anybody saw you miss that tackle."