LANDOVER, Md. — The rest of the National Football League is officially on notice: Darius Leonard is a playmaker.
The rookie linebacker played like a man possessed in just his second NFL game on Sunday, collecting 18 tackles and filling up the stat sheet in many other areas, as he helped lead the Indianapolis Colts to a 21-9 victory over the Washington Redskins at FedExField.
“I just went out and tried to play every play — tried to make a play,” Leonard told Colts.com’s Caroline Cann after the win. “Coach has always said linebackers gotta hit the ball each and every play, and that’s something that I wanted to do. And I tried to (come) out, and that’s what I did — tried to hit the ball.”
When the Colts (1-1) made the switch to a 4-3 base defense this offseason, they knew they had to get a player at the WILL linebacker position who not only had the ability to simply make some tackles. They needed a player who had the speed to cover the entire field, sideline-to-sideline; someone who could wreak havoc both against the run and in coverage against shifty running backs and tight ends.
So general manager Chris Ballard jumped at the opportunity to select Leonard with the team’s first pick in the second round of this year’s NFL Draft. Sure, Leonard played at an FCS school, South Carolina State, but to Ballard, your film is your DNA, and when he watched the linebacker’s game tape, he saw a starting-caliber WILL linebacker for his defense — and not down the road.
After fighting through a nagging quad injury for most of the offseason, Leonard was full-go for the start of training camp on July 26, and announced his presence with authority from the start, picking off quarterback Andrew Luck in his very first full team practice.
Leonard’s stock has only risen since then.
He impressed with nine tackles and a fumble recovery last week in his NFL debut against the Cincinnati Bengals, but Sunday’s Week 2 matchup against the Redskins was a performance some NFL linebackers can only dream of.
Oh, and we mentioned Leonard’s a rookie, right?
“As soon as I got drafted, Coach ‘Flus (Matt Eberflus) called me and told me that he wanted me to be a leader right then,” Leonard said. “So I kind of put my hard hat on and just went to work from there.”
Leonard’s complete stat line on Sunday: 18 tackles, 15 of which were solo stops; his first-career sack; his first-career forced fumble; his first-career pass breakup. His 18 tackles weren’t just the most in a game by a Colts defender since Kavell Conner had 18 stops on Oct. 3, 2011, but they’re also the most by an Indy rookie in a game since 1994.
Leonard also nearly had what would’ve been his first of two forced fumbles on a play in the second quarter when he knocked the ball out of wide receiver Jamison Crowder’s hands, but a review showed Crowder was down before the ball came out.
That desire to create turnovers is something ingrained in Leonard and all the Indy defenders in practices, where the team charts players who intercept passes or who come up with a loose ball on the ground — even if it’s an incomplete pass.
“We practice it 24-7 — strip the ball, whoever’s got it,” Leonard said. “So every time I see the ball I want the ball last so I can get my name on the board.”
The way Leonard played on Sunday, he probably will have his name on many other boards across the league moving forward.