Before the season, Indianapolis Colts second-year safety Melvin Bullitt was known, if he was known at all, for one thing.
He wore Dominic Rhodes' old number.
Rhodes tried to get No. 33 back. He made some offers and kept getting rebuffed. Bullitt had a good reason; it was a tribute to his father. Bullitt held onto the number.
“I don't know too many people who want me to give it back now,” Bullitt said.
No, Bullitt has made No. 33 his number this year, and has become one of the more surprisingly invaluable players on the Colts. In retrospect, we should have known he'd be a key - he's the backup for perennially injured star Bob Sanders.
Bullitt leads the Colts with four interceptions (tied for second-best in the NFL) and has ended three games with a final pick: both wins against Houston and the win at Pittsburgh.
As the Colts (6-4) head to San Diego (4-6) for an 8:15 p.m. Sunday game with playoff implications, Bullitt slips into his usual role.
He's planning like he's the starter, but bracing for a reduced role if Sanders returns to the field.
“I have to prepare like a starter because we never know who's going to be up or down,” Bullitt said. “San Diego's very explosive. They have a lot of weapons they like to throw to. They've got two backs who can hit a home run on any play and one of the best tight ends in the league.”
Bullitt speaks the truth. The Chargers might be the most enigmatic team in the NFL, but they remain extremely dangerous for any defensive secondary. Philip Rivers is 18-2 at home in his career, including 4-1 this season. He leads the AFC with a 100.8 passer rating. He's thrown an NFL-best 21 touchdown passes. He has four games of 300 or more yards passing.
Bullitt and the rest of the secondary will be tested as Rivers looks for wide receivers Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson as well as tight end Antonio Gates. Then there's the running back duo of LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles, skilled on the ground or in the short passing game. Sproles returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in the Chargers' regular-season win over the Colts last year.
“One thing we've been seeing is that our confidence is built up around here,” Bullitt said. “We have a lot of different guys playing (in the secondary) and everyone feels like they can go out and do the job.”
Bullitt, who was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M last season, says he has relied on Sanders and fellow safety Antoine Bethea to help him prepare for the variety of offenses he has faced this season. They also provide general strategies for surviving at safety in the NFL.
“They definitely tell me different things they've been through,” Bullitt said. “What they see out of me is what they did a year or two ago when they first became a starter. And that's good because they both turned out to be great players.”
Bullitt earned a lot of praise for his game-ending interception against Houston last week, but he looks back on that game and sees Steve Slaton escaping his would-be tackle for a 71-yard touchdown run. He sees other missed assignments and plays he didn't make.
In other words, he's driven to shore up weaknesses rather than strut with success.
“There's so much I still have to learn,” Bullitt said. “Last week wasn't one of my better weeks. People were like, ‘He played so good,' but there was so much more I could do and I'm looking forward to doing that this week.”
He's not dwelling on the missed tackle of Slaton. He's learning from it.
“You're going to make some plays and miss some,” Bullitt said. “You just want to make more than you miss. … I'm just glad when I can go out there and make some plays.”
Bullitt's play has been invaluable because Sanders is so injury-prone. If and when Sanders returns to the lineup, the depth that has been added to the secondary with Bullitt's playing experience should pay off.
Bullitt fits comfortably in No. 33 these days. Rhodes powers ahead like a runaway train in his new uniform, No. 38.
In the most important ways, the Colts still have the winning numbers.