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NFL Draft

Darius Leonard’s Return Reminded Us How Special He Is

  • The Draft Network
  • November 4, 2020
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A nickname often embodies who you are or what you’re capable of. So when a player has a recognizable nickname, chances are you better pay attention to not only what they can do, but what their nickname means and how they got it.

For example, the greatest kick returner of all time, Devin Hester, was called “Anytime.” Why? Because at any time, any moment, he could swing the entire game in just one play. And he did just that more than any other kick returner in special teams history. Marshawn Lynch is another that comes to mind. His nickname “Beast Mode” is exactly what you think it is. When he’s got that ball in his hands, there was a chance he could transform from a football player to an uncontrollable—untackleable—beast on the field.

There are a handful of players in the game today that carry nicknames representing their impactful play. “All Day” for Adrian Peterson’s running style. “Flash Gordon” for Josh Gordon’s amazing physical attributes. But there’s another player and his nickname that doesn’t get mentioned as much as others that showed up in its truest form this past Sunday.

Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard—The Maniac.

Since he was drafted in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Leonard’s 11 takeaways are more than any other linebacker in football, a stat he added to this past Sunday via a forced fumble, as he made his return from a groin injury. Per Zak Keefer, in Leonard’s 33 career starts, he’s recorded 320 total tackles, 22 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, seven forced fumbles, and seven interceptions.

Leonard and his nickname are more than just production; they’re a presence. What Leonard can do for that Matt Eberflus-coached defense goes beyond a box score that is already stuffed to the max.

“Certainly Darius is the leader of that defense in many respects, first and foremost with his playmaking ability,” head coach Frank Reich said. “Love it when he’s out there and the plays that he makes and the energy that he brings. He definitely gets us going on defense.”

As a whole, the Colts defense is currently third in the NFL in yards-per-play, tied for third in takeaways, fifth in expected points contributed by the defense each game, tied for first in interceptions, and are top 10 in both least amount of passing touchdowns allowed and rushing touchdowns allowed.

Leonard is a big reason for that.

First, we need to talk about how strong Leonard is against the run.

The play above was just one example where, if Leonard has a free run at a tight end blocking off the line of scrimmage, there’s a good chance he’s going to impose his will on them. Leonard’s nickname Maniac shows up when he attacks the pocket. There is no reservation to him running into the gap he is responsible for, and even when he doesn’t make the tackle, his impact makes the play for another player to finish.

Leonard is so savvy when it comes to timing his momentum to attack right when the ball is snapped, and before tight ends usually have a good anchor to brace for his impact. In the play above, Leonard blew straight by the tight end and into the backfield. The split zone movement behind the line of scrimmage did not fool him at all, and he was able to shoot right between the extra blockers who were going with the flow of the rest of the line. That takes some serious focus, and from how fast Leonard attacked it, you can tell he had full confidence he was going to shoot that gap.

Leonard is also a strong presence in the passing game.

In the play above, Leonard first lined up right over the center, showing the alignment of a backer who was going to attack the A gap at the snap, but when the ball was snapped, Leonard quickly dropped back into coverage. Notice how quickly he was able to flip his hips and get right into the potential throwing lane. I am not sure if quarterback Matt Stafford was targeting the receiver Leonard quickly covered or not, but something messed up the timing with his throw. It could very well have been how quickly Leonard was able to drop and get in the way.

There was another coverage play later in the game where Leonard showed his savvy skills, this time in man coverage. For as smart as Leonard is in zone, he is also athletic enough to keep up with tight ends in man coverage. Leonard yielded a little bit of separation on that play, but for the most part, he was able to stick with the receiver at the breaking point and was close enough to where, if the ball was thrown that way, the placement and pace of the pass would have needed to be perfect for him not to catch up and bat it away.

Finally, we have to go over the most impactful play Leonard had in the game, his forced fumble when he was brought on the blitz as extra pressure.

Leonard just plays with such great speed and awareness. He understands where blocking schemes and blocking developments are strongest and quickly moves to areas where they might be weak. He’s explosive and agile when collapsing the pocket and is clearly always thinking about how he can make the strongest play against the ball.

Leonard has the most takeaways for a linebacker for a reason—or should I say “reasons.” He’s first and foremost reliable against the run. He’s also a good matchup player in both zone and man. And when you decide to bring him on the blitz, he gives you plus pass-rush abilities. 

As long as the Colts have this guy in the center of their defense, expect them to be a top-10 defense in the league.

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