Facing a critical second-and-2 at the first half's two-minute mark in Week 1, the Jacksonville Jaguars called for a handoff to running back D'Ernest Johnson. With the ball at the Colts' 36-yard line, a first down was in sight – and with it, a fresh set of downs to get the Jaguars a few cracks at the end zone, or at least a field goal attempt, before the end of the second quarter.
At the snap, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner was immediately hit with a double team from the Jaguars' left tackle and left guard. But he soaked it up, opening a lane for linebacker Shaquille Leonard – who didn't hesitate to hit it, playing downhill with speed. Leonard fought through a chip from tight end Luke Farrell, maintaining his balance through it, and lunged for Johnson.
Leonard tackled Johnson for a loss of four. Third down turned into a passing down, and defensive end Kwity Paye sacked quarterback Trevor Lawrence on it. The Jaguars were forced to punt.
That was just one of Leonard's eight tackles in Week 1, but it was a reminder of the kind of player he is after the three-time first-team AP All-Pro appeared in only three games in 2022.
"I like what I saw," Leonard said. "I'm still not satisfied with what I saw. But I liked the player that was out there and hopefully I can continue to build off that and make good strides."
The Colts managed Leonard's workload by taking him off the field mostly on third down – he played four of the Colts' 12 third down defensive snaps against the Jaguars. He wasn't on the field for 10 defensive snaps; eight were on third down.
"The plan was really be aware of how many plays in a row he had," defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. "There were times he was off on third down because he had a number of plays in a row. We try to monitor that part of it.
"But I will say this, it's hard to tell him, 'You're off the field,' in the heat of the moment in critical times. If it's play number six or play number seven in a row happens to be in the red zone or something, he wants to continue to play, which is right. We love that about him."
The Colts and Leonard have been intentional about the process to get No. 53 back on the field, emphasizing that nothing will be rushed after he underwent two procedures to address nerve pain last year. But through that process, Leonard has consistently cleared every hurdle: He began training camp participating in full-team, non-padded drills, then worked his way up to full-padded drills. Then, Leonard played in the Colts' preseason opener; a concussion sidelined him for the rest of the preseason but he was able to play a significant amount of snaps on Sunday.
Still, Bradley said his focus with Leonard is on the big picture of 2023.
"Where is he at now, and let's just make sure each day we get better and then let's take a look at it in November and see where we're at," Bradley said. "We're going to be patient with him to come back. I think he had quite a few reps. He probably had more than we anticipated going into the game, but I know that he felt pretty good. So, we're just going to keep monitoring that as a week-to-week conversation with him."
We'll see where things go with Leonard from here, but he left Week 1 encouraged about where his season can go – and grateful for the opportunity to play football again.
"It was satisfying," Leonard said. "After everything I've been through, to get back out there again, play the game I love. It definitely was satisfying to go out there and compete with the guys."
Thursday's practice report