"Deion knows a tremendous amount about football," says Tom Holmoe, coach of the 49ers' defensive backs. "He studies and he studies. He'd come to me on the side, and I'd ask him a few questions, and he was always totally prepared. He knows his opponent inside out long before he steps out on the field to play."
Rarely has Sanders's value been more apparent than in last year's Oct. 16 matchup between Atlanta and San Francisco, a battle for the NFC West lead. Sanders, playing the Falcons for the first time since becoming a 49er, was assigned to cover Andre Rison, a four-time selection to the Pro Bowl. Rison was the most significant component of the Falcon offense, the go-to guy in times of need, and the fellow whom Atlanta coach June Jones had described as "one of the best athletes I've ever been around."
Early in the game Sanders and Rison engaged in a spirited fist-fight. "After that Andre's entire game just went out the window," says Milt Jackson, the Falcon assistant head coach and receivers coach. "Deion did what he wanted to do, which was to get to Andre's head, and Andre didn't play well at all. I talked to him and said, 'You're letting Deion take you out of your game. You need to go out and play the game we practice.' But nothing worked for Andre." Jackson adds, "In that game Deion controlled at least one quarter of the field."
In addition to punking Rison, Sanders intercepted a pass and returned it 93 yards for a touchdown, helping to spark the 49ers' 42-3 win. Rison finished the game with five catches for only 32 yards, but two of the receptions came after Sanders pulled a groin muscle and was forced to sit out the second half.
"Deion owned him," says Falcon quarterback Bobby Hebert, "but we didn't help Andre because we left him in a stationary position. You can't do that. If you just line up a guy against Deion and don't put him in motion, Deion will eat him up. Andre was rattled from the first quarter because Deion messed with his head. Instead of running his routes, Andre was wasting time at the line. A quarterback has around 2½ to three seconds to throw the ball, and Andre was out there farting around on the line, doing some kind of move, and Deion was not even reacting to it. It wasted a second-and-a-half, and by the time Andre was into his route, the 49ers had their pass rush going, and it was too late."
Rison is known for his hands rather than for his speed, which exacerbated his disadvantage against Sanders, who might be the fastest player in the game. Sanders has run the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, a time shared by a fair number of players in the skill positions. But when it comes to "football speed," meaning a player's speed while in full uniform and running on soft grass or hard artificial surfaces, Sanders tops nearly all of them. "I can run away from most of the guys in the league," Haynes says, "but I haven't beaten him deep yet."
"Deion has more football speed than anyone I've seen," says Dave Campo, the Cowboys' defensive coordinator. "His ability to run and go make a play, that's what separates him from everybody else."
This is not to say that Sanders doesn't get beaten. All defensive backs get beaten. "In our second game against the 49ers last year, Flipper got behind him and scored on him," says Ram strong safety Toby Wright. "It surprised me because you don't see it happen much. Afterward you could see Deion going through different stages. First he kind of laughed as if he couldn't believe it. Then he gave Flip congrats for making the play. But what sticks with me is what happened next: Deion, later in the game, made the play that really caused us to lose. We were driving, and it came down to this one play. Flip does a deep post, and Deion's beat, and Chris Miller throws the ball. Flip's all by himself for what feels like a minute, and the ball seems to be going in slow motion, and out of nowhere you see Deion flash across and make the knockdown for the play. He was like a blur, and then all of a sudden it's over. The important thing is that after he was beaten, he didn't stay beaten. He came back. Deion's brave that way."
"Because of his speed he's probably the best defensive back in the league," Anderson says. "He feels like he can catch up to any ball thrown, and by the time the ball's there, he can break it up or intercept it. He doesn't look like he's running that fast because he seems to glide. He's moving, though."
Then there's Sanders's quickness. He can stop and start right back up again. "If a receiver stops, Deion can stop," Campo says. "And if the receiver accelerates again, Deion has the ability to accelerate from zero to 60 as quick as anybody."