Shaquille Leonard has collected takeaways in bunches to begin his NFL career, so for him to haul in an interception early in the fourth quarter of Sunday's Week 8 matchup against the Washington Commanders, on the surface, might even be considered expected at this point.
But as is often the case with Leonard, there's much more to the story. The added context to this well-timed takeaway — on Washington's first play from scrimmage after Indianapolis had retaken the lead, 9-7, with a 20-yard Chase McLaughlin field goal — is how Leonard on Sunday was making his return after missing three games due to a bad-luck concussion and injuries to his nose and back. And even that occurred just 16 snaps into his 2022 debut after missing the first three games of the season due to offseason back surgery.
So, suffice to say, Leonard has had a challenging journey back to the field now twice in the same season. And even his big play on Sunday against the Commanders — which eventually led to a six-yard touchdown run by Nyheim Hines — was bittersweet, due to Indianapolis' inability to slow down the Washington offense down the stretch in a 17-16 Colts' loss.
"Disappointment," Leonard said when asked the feeling in the locker room following the game. "Didn't do enough to win the ballgame. Defensively, we had a lead; we didn't step up and get the job done, and it sucks."
Leonard, who was on a pitch count on Sunday, officially made his return to the field about midway through the second quarter. He logged 24 total snaps — about 39 percent of the total defensive snaps for the Colts on the day — and was credited with four tackles, and interception and a pass defensed.
"We kind of were working him back in knowing that he is not quite all the way back," Colts head coach Frank Reich said of Leonard against the Commanders. "So that was just part of the planned rotation."
Even so, the football found its way into Leonard's hands.
Trailing 7-6 early in the fourth quarter, the Colts had scratched and clawed their way to Washington 1-yard line, only to be stuffed on third and goal. So Reich elected for a McLaughlin field goal from 20 yards out to reclaim the lead, 9-7, with 12:35 remaining in the game.
The Commanders set up shop for the ensuing drive at their 25-yard line. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke, lined up in shotgun, quickly felt the pressure building from the Colts' Tyquan Lewis, who got his hand the ball as it was being released. Leonard was in the right spot at the right time to easily grab the floating football at the Washington 39-yard line, and ran it back 15 yards to the 24.
"That's what he does," Reich said of Leonard. "I know it just came right into his hands, but how does that happen to him? He just seems to be at the right place at the right time."
Two plays (and one penalty) later, quarterback Sam Ehlinger, making his 2022 starting debut for the Colts, handed the ball off to Hines, who ran untouched off the left edge into the end zone, giving the Colts a 16-7 lead with 11:17 remaining in the fourth quarter.
But Washington would fight back, first with a 28-yard field goal with 4:59 remaining to cut the Indy lead to six, 16-10. Then, with 2:39 left in the ballgame, the Commanders would begin a nine-play, 89-yard drive, highlighted by a 33-yard pass from Heinicke to his top target, wide receiver Terry McLaurin, to get to the 1-yard line. Heinicke, making his second straight start in place of an injured Carson Wentz, took it into the end zone on the next play, giving Washington the one-point lead with 26 seconds remaining — and, ultimately, the win.
"We thought right there that we had a momentum switch and we were just going to keep the thing rolling," Leonard said of his interception and the ensuing Colts touchdown. "You know, we thought wrong, and they found a way to claw back, and they got the job done."