WESTFIELD, Ind. — They call him "The Maniac," but there's actually a lot of mental preparation that goes into making Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard such a terror for opposing offenses.
While he may fly around the field making plays every Sunday, the second-year star is able to do that because of his film study and practice habits.
Recently, NFL.com released another episode of “NFL Game Pass Film Session,” with former NFL players and current analysts Brian Baldinger and Ron Jaworski breaking down film with Leonard to see how he's able to do what he does.
For those that haven’t yet caught the show, we’ve got you covered here.
On and off the field, Leonard is already a leader who is wise beyond his years. We actually caught up with Baldinger one day while he visited Colts training camp, and he talked a bit about what makes Leonard so successful.
Baldinger and Jaworski started out their show by talking with Leonard about what he was able to accomplish as NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, his leadership and positive attitude.
“When I sit back and just think about the season and just see what I accomplished, I still don’t believe it," Leonard said. "I think I shocked myself from where I thought I would be to where I’m at, so of course I started to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
“I know how it is to go through tough times, and I know how it is as a team when you see one person down, it’s contagious, and everybody else gets down," Leonard explained about staying positive. "You let the guys know, “Hey, we’re not out of this fight; we still have time. The only thing we’ve gotta do is go out here and control what we can control and just have fun and just try to make plays.’”
The trio get into the tape by first focusing on Leonard's tackling. It's a pretty broad topic considering Leonard became the first rookie since Luke Kuechly in 2012 to lead the entire NFL in tackles (163).
Baldinger starts by commenting that it didn't seem like anyone was able to actually block Leonard during the season.
“Playing at 220 — between 216 to 225 — playing between them, it allows me to be very fast. And I’ve got long arms," Leonard replied. "So, I’m not the type of guy who’s going to come down to an offensive lineman. I’m not gonna give you my body. I’m gonna play with my hands so I can at least maneuver around you to make a play. I know I’m not big, I’m not the strongest, so I’m not gonna go blow for blow.”
Throughout the segment, Baldinger and Jaworski show a few plays Leonard made in the Colts' Week 12 win over the Miami Dolphins (Leonard's Mic'd Up session from that game is posted below).
The first play has the Colts' defense lined up in the nickel formation. Originally assigned to the B-gap (between guard and tackle), Leonard notices the center begin to pull block to the offense's left side. Leonard realized he would have room to operate and get to the running back because he's more fleet-footed than the center, and then chases the running back down on the left side. The run gains about seven yards, but had a lot more daylight before Leonard flew in.
On the following play, the Colts are again in nickel with Leonard lined up at WILL. He is to initially monitor the tight end, who is lined up off the line of scrimmage behind the right tackle's right side. The tight end goes in motion to his left, and Leonard sees the running back get the handoff and the direction the run is going as the play begins. Leonard shifts his focus to the runner, keeps himself upright in space and jets forward to make the tackle. Again, this was another play that yielded a decent, five-yard gain, but Leonard's instincts saved it from going for more.
On another play that Baldinger and Jaworski spun up, Leonard makes a big-time play out in the open field. The Dolphins are lined up in shotgun with the running back in the backfield with the quarterback. The Colts are — you guessed it — in nickel, with Leonard as the MIKE this time. Leonard's first read was the running back. Since they were lined up flat with the quarterback, Leonard says he expected it was going to be an outside zone play. When the ball was snapped, the left side of the Miami line let the Colts' line come free, which indicated to Leonard it was going to be a screen pass to the left side. By the time receiver DeVante Parker caught the quick pass, Leonard and cornerback Kenny Moore II were right there to kill the play for no gain.
This game featured plenty of run-ins between Leonard and former Colts running back Frank Gore (36 years old). At one point, Leonard chased Gore out of bounds and yelled to him, "I ain't no little boy now!"
The next film breakdown segment focused on Leonard's uncanny ability to force fumbles, of which he did five times as a rookie including the playoffs.
"You have an unbelievable ability, Darius, just to get the ball out," Baldinger said. "We're gonna see a couple of these plays here, whether it's just punching it out or whether you're just pulling the lawnmower cord. I mean, it's a part of your game."
"That's something we take pride in every day," Leonard responded. "We talk about taking a punch at the ball. And me, I'd rather get ran over if I can get the ball out."
They begin by focusing on the fumble that Leonard forced on Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins in the Divisional Round of last year's playoffs
"My eyes right there is at the ball. I see the elbow, I see the air pocket. So that's when you see I give it a little what you call a Mike Tyson punch, and the ball comes out."
Jaworski then asks Leonard what Leonard means by "air pocket."
"They're (offensive players) taught to have the elbow close to the body when you're carrying the rock, and usually when you're falling, a lot of guys their elbows come out as they try to brace themselves. As you see here, his elbow comes out," Leonard responds.
"I watch film all the time and I see guys who never tuck the ball, who run with it careless, and me, I want that ball," Leonard explains. "So if you'll notice every single tackle that I make, I go for that ball."
The following forced fumble was in Week 2 against the Washington Redskins and was Leonard's first. It came in a game that earned him his first-ever NFL Defensive Rookie of the Week award after also posting 19 tackles and a sack.
With the Colts leading, 21-9, with five minutes remaining in the game, the Redskins had 1st & 10 on the Colts’ 29-yard line and were looking to make it a one-score game. Leonard had noted stud tight end Jordan Reed in his crosshairs.
"Jordan Reed right there. That ball's a little loose. It's a little loose. You're eyeing it right here. There it is," Baldinger points out. "You probably saw that in preparation for it. And here you come; it's subtle, just enough to jab that ball out."
The fumble would be recovered by Colts cornerback Pierre Desir, and the Colts would go on to seal the victory.
The next play was in the Colts' Week 6 matchup with the New York Jets.
"This is (Quincy) Enunwa's coming across the middle right here. He sees you," Baldinger says. "Look at that punch (Leonard's forced fumble). That's a tomahawk. That's a tomahawk right there. There's no way he's hanging onto that ball. I see some guys go for the strip, and they completely miss the tackle. You at least take him down with your left arm. Look at that tomahawk, man. That's violent."
"That's on a lot of highlight tape right there when coaches are coaching," Jaworski comments. "'Here's a tomahawk right here, that's it.'"
Like the previous play, the ball was recovered by the Colts, specifically defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad..
Next up is a play that Leonard holds near and dear to his heart. "That's my favorite one," he says before the clip even begins.
With the Colts leading, 35-28, with 5:17 remaining in the game, the Raiders had 1st & 10 on their own 25-yard line. Their offense was hot, scoring a touchdown on four of their last five true drives.
"Once I saw the stiff arm, he came to stiff arm me, I saw the air pocket and that's when I went for the ball," Leonard said.
Leonard showed a laser focus, punching the ball out of running back Doug Martin’s arm, with the fumble again being recovered by the Colts. The Indy offense would then score the game-sealing touchdown on the ensuing drive, winning 42-28.
"That's another highlight tape," Jaworski said. "These are the ones coaches are clipping around the league. Not only in Indy, but around the league, they're saying, 'This is how you execute.'"
Next up was Leonard's ability to blitz and get after the quarterback. His seven sacks were near the top of the league among off-ball linebackers
The first play was his first of two sacks against Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz back in Week 3. Before the snap, you can see Leonard lined up behind left defensive end Jabaal Sheard, and the two are communicating.
"We're blitzing off the edge so I was letting him know that I was coming so he can go inside," Leonard explained. It obviously worked like a charm.
They would then quickly glance at a couple other sacks by Leonard during the season — his second of that game as well as a sack of Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill in Week 12.
Covering The Slot
A very underrated part of Leonard's game is his ability to guard highly athletic opponents out of the slot.
Their first play on the docket was another one from the Eagles in Week 3 that had Leonard matched up with Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz.
"Here you are covering these elite tight ends. This is Zach Ertz. Jaws, how many catches did Zach have last year?" Baldinger asks.
"Well, he broke the NFL record," Jaworski responds. "Broke Jason Witten's record for receptions for a tight end."
"It's remarkable, Darius, that you can walk out on these basically big slot receivers and play the ball like this," Baldinger comments.
On the play, Ertz is lined up in the slot to the left, and Leonard is on him playing man-to-man. Ertz ran a five-yard inside cross, and Leonard closed in on him in an instant, swiping the ball away and bringing Ertz down to break up the pass.
"It's becoming almost like positionless football," Baldinger comments on Leonard's ability to move around and do different tasks. "You can be a MIKE, you can be a slot, you can be an edge rusher, all these different positions right here."
The next clip they showed was perhaps the most impressive, and it comes with a backstory.
In Week 14 against the Houston Texans, Leonard is in the same situation as before, lined up in the left slot against DeAndre Hopkins, who many consider to be the best wide receiver in the NFL.
Houston has the ball at the Colts' 13-yard line. Although Hopkins gets the initial inside track on Leonard when he runs his shallow inside slant route, Leonard is able to use his long arms to reach in and bat Deshaun Watson' pass away before it can get into Hopkins' hand space.
"Earlier — matter of fact, the first game in overtime (Week 4) — I was in the same position," Leonard recalls. "He (Hopkins) beat me inside to seal the game, and I knew that I didn't want to feel that again. So I knew whenever he's in the slot, once he try to make a move he's going back inside. I missed with my stab hand, but I knew what he was doing so it was easy for me to redirect and knock the ball down"
Reading The QB
Now, for a trait that separates Leonard from many as one of the league's best young linebackers is his ability to manipulate quarterbacks.
The first play is the first interception of Leonard's career, a Week 11 snag at home against the Tennessee Titans and backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert. "Every once in a while you get a Christmas gift," Baldinger comments.
Coincidentally, Leonard's second career interception also came from Gabbert and the Titans.
In the final game of the NFL’s regular season on Sunday Night Football, the winner would claim the last remaining playoff spot in the AFC while the loser’s season would end. With the Colts leading, 33-17, with two minutes remaining in the game, the Titans had 2nd & 16 on their own 28-yard line. A touchdown and two-point conversion on the drive would make it a one-score game for the Titans.
Gabbert threw a short pass down the mid-left side of the field, but Leonard jumped the route, intercepting the ball and returning it inside the Titans’ 10-yard line. The Colts would then drop knees in the victory formation three times and punch their ticket to the postseason.
"I baited him. At the end of the game, I knew he was gonna go to the sit route, so I tried to bait him and act like I was playing over the top," Leonard said. "When I saw the hand come off the ball, I knew exactly where he was going and went for it."
"Doesn't Gabbert throw you another gift here? You guys have something going on?" Jaworski jokes,
"That's insight," Jaworski continues.
"Jaws, did you think rookies could learn all these things?" Baldinger asked.
"No. This is shocking, Darius," Jaworski responds. "You ought to be proud of what you've accomplished."
Leonard had to learn how to play off of NFL quarterbacks somewhere, right?
"I love the quarterback position, I study these quarterbacks. You're fortunate to have one of the real young stars of this league," Jaworski told Leonard about Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. "You guys are gonna be together for another decade. How has it helped you working every day against a competitor like Andrew Luck?"
"Being in the zone (coverage), they always talk about having zone eyes," Leonard answers. "And quarterbacks, they bait you with their eyes. A lot of times early, I was getting pulled because he was looking one way and then he would throw it exactly where I just left from," Leonard explains about his early knack for getting fooled by quarterback play.
"Having Andrew there, I can go talk to Andrew and ask him, 'What's your read here?' and he'll let me know what he's seeing from a quarterback perspective," Leonard continued. "That kinda allows me to use that against other any other quarterback."
With direct conversation as well as manifesting it on the field, Luck has helped train Leonard to combat eye manipulation by opposing quarterbacks so that Leonard can use it to he and the Colts' benefit against other quarterbacks in game situations.