INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts fell short against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, but Darius Leonard did everything in his power to will his team to a much different result.
On a day in which the team honored Dwight Freeney as its first defensive inductee into the Ring of Honor, Leonard turned in a stat-sheet-stuffing performance, logging 13 tackles including two for a loss — both of which are single-game highs for him this season — as well as one sack, one interception, two pass breakups and a quarterback hit.
But in the end, it would be the Dolphins flying home with the victory, as they battled back after Indy took its first lead of the game, 12-10, with 11:30 left in the fourth quarter. Miami would knock in two field goals in the final six minutes and hold off the Colts on their final drive to earn a 16-12 win; the Colts (5-4) now have had all nine of their games decided by a touchdown or less.
Despite a strong group effort from the defense on Sunday, Leonard took the loss personally.
"We didn't do enough. We didn't do enough to get a victory," Leonard said after the game. "They scored, what, 16 points? That's still not enough. So I don't think we played well enough to help this team win."
It didn't take long at all for Leonard to make an impact on Sunday. On the fourth play of the game, Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki caught a shallow pass and headed upfield to pick up more yardage. As he lunged toward the ground, Leonard zeroed in on the football, knocking it out of Gesicki’s grasp; cornerback Kenny Moore II picked up the ball for the early takeaway for the Colts' defense.
Leonard wasn’t even close to being done making plays at that point.
With the clock winding down in the first half and the Dolphins out to a 10-0 lead, they faced 3rd and 7 at their own 36-yard line. Leonard, with his eyes glued to the ball, swooped in as Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick shuffled around, bringing the quarterback down for a sack and essentially putting an end to the first half of action.
After the play, Leonard saluted in a nod to Freeney and his signature sack celebration.
"I mean for him being in the Ring of Honor today, I just had to let him know that I grew up watching him and Robert Mathis,” Leonard said. “So I definitely had to give him props, especially with him in the building."
The reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year’s biggest play of the day came at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
With the Colts trailing 10-6, defensive linemen Margus Hunt and Al-Quadin Muhammad put the pressure on Fitzpatrick, causing him to make an errant pass that landed right in Leonard’s midsection. Leonard fought to escape the grasp of nearby Dolphins players, eventually breaking free and racing into the end zone.
Unfortunately for Leonard and the Colts, the officials ruled Leonard's forward progress had been halted, taking a possible defensive score off the board.
"We just needed a spark. We always go out and our defense tries to make takeaways,” Leonard said. “I think it was Margus Hunt got great pressure on the quarterback and made him throw a bad throw, and I was just in the right position at the right time.
"I honestly thought it was a touchdown the whole time,” Leonard later said. “I never heard the whistle until I saw the offense going out, and I was like, 'What is going on?'"
Regardless, the Colts’ offense seized the opportunity that Leonard helped provide, scoring a touchdown seven plays later to claim Indy's first lead of the game, 12-10.
With some outside noise suggesting he perhaps hasn’t been what he put on display in his All-Pro rookie season last year, Leonard responded Sunday by proving his doubters wrong once more; just four Colts players since at least 1993 have logged one sack, one forced fumble and one interception in a single game, and Leonard has now accomplished that feat twice.
And while he'd much rather make those plays in a winning effort, Leonard doesn't take for granted his ability to be the guy that's counted on to make game-changing plays week after week.
"I just put myself in the right opportunities, I guess,” Leonard said. “Being around the ball 24/7, trusting my keys, just being me.”