The Colts got quite a bargain in the second round of the 2018 draft when they selected South Carolina State linebacker Darius Leonard with the 36th overall pick. All Leonard has done since then is to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, make two Pro Bowls, and earn two First-Team All-Pro selections. Leonard has become the NFL’s most prominent player from an HBCU school, and coming into Indianapolis’ game with the Patriots on Saturday, he had been involved in 10 of his team’s league-high 29 turnovers — two interceptions, five forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries.
With 1:52 left in the first half, Leonard got another turnover with an interceptions of Mac Jones. New England’s rookie quarterback was trying to hit Hunter Henry, but he didn’t see Leonard dropping into coverage. That stopped a potential Patriots score, and Bill Belichick’s team headed into the locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium having failed to score any first-half points since 2016.
Leonard’s fanaticism for turnovers stems in part from his frustration over his 2020 season, when he had no interceptions after picking off five passes in 2019, and two in his rookie campaign.
I watched tape with Leonard in June, and asked him about this 2019 interceptions of then-Jaguars and current Eagles quarterback Gardner Minshew.
Our exchange was quite revealing.
DF: I wanted to go back to this interception against the Jaguars in Week 17 of the 2019 season, because it seems to show how much opponents think of you as a flat defender. Gardner Minshew has running back Ryquell Armstead in the left flat here, and he looks to him quickly when he’s pressured, but he doesn’t seem to want to take the bait. And then, of course, when he throws it late, you jump the route. What are your keys on coverage like this, where you’re either in the flat, or you’re playing hook/curl, and you’re in charge of that intermediate coverage assignment?
DL: On that play, I was man-to-man on the back. So, my eyes are on him the whole time. And you know the route tree from a running back — there’s not too many routes he’s going to run. So, when he flared to the flat, I knew it wasn’t an angle, and I knew it wasn’t a burst route. I knew it wasn’t a wheel route, because of the way he came out of the backfield. So, I didn’t want to go down and try to take him — I wanted to play back a little bit. Try to bait the quarterback, and make it look like he was open. But I knew if he threw the ball, I could plant, point, and drive as fast as I possibly can, and be able to make a play.
On that play, [Minshew] looked at me at first, so I’m thinking, ‘There’s no way he’s throwing this ball here.’ But he was under pressure, and when quarterbacks are under pressure… quarterbacks don’t like to take hits. They try to get that pigskin out of their hand as quickly as they can. He saw him in the flat, and I just tried to use my athletic ability to jump up, lay out for it, and get an interception.
DF: You were still strong in coverage in 2020, but you didn’t have any interceptions. Does that speak to the idea that interceptions are random to a degree? It’s like with an edge-rusher who has six sacks, and everybody thinks he’s terrible as a result, but he has 70 pressures.
DL: I mean… yes and no. When I watch film, I know that I dropped four interceptions. And those are things you can’t do as a linebacker, or as a leader, or as a ‘superstar.’ Those are things that suck. And when I don’t have interceptions, that’s when people start saying, ‘Darius Leonard, his coverage sucks, his play has dropped, he’s inconsistent.’ But people don’t understand the game; they don’t watch the game. They just look at the stats. I set the bar so high in my rookie season, and ever since then, it’s so hard to play at that level. Everybody wants to see 130 tackles, seven sacks, five interceptions, but it’s hard to do that year in and year out. I just have to keep getting on the Jugs [machines] and hopefully catch the balls that are thrown to me, and get the interceptions I deserve.
DF: So, obviously, that’s a point of focus in your offseason.
DL: Yes, sir.
Safe to say, the point of focus has paid off handsomely.