INDIANAPOLIS – The usually uber confident Shaquille Leonard even had a tint of hesitation in his voice when asked about how close he felt to his normal self entering Sunday’s opener.
And that’s understandable given the physical hell Leonard has been through in trying to correct multiple years of leg pain, leading to multiple back surgeries.
But Leonard’s return to game action on Sunday saw No. 53 making some a play behind the line of scrimmage, and also in space, offering some signs that weren’t seen in his brief 3-game playing stint from last year.
More than that, Leonard’s teammates felt the emotional lift of his return.
“Just seeing 5-3 out there, seeing him put his jersey on before the game – I think it’s deeper than ball,” Kenny Moore said of Leonard on Monday.
“I’m just so thankful to see him in good graces. A TFL yesterday – he’s doing his Riverdance; it brightens a piece of my heart.”
Leonard finished Sunday with 8 tackles (1 for loss). As expected, Leonard was on a slight pitch count, playing 60 of 70 defensive snaps, with E.J. Speed subbing in for him.
The 60 snaps for Leonard were a bit more than the Colts thought he would play. At times, Leonard came off the field on third downs, with the Colts not wanting his consecutive play number to exceed a certain point. But the Colts were pleased with how Leonard felt after a 60-snap season debut.
This was his first full contact setting since November 6, 2022 (Leonard didn’t make a tackle in 6 preseason snaps this year), as his ’22 season ended once it was a deemed another back surgery was needed, following a June back procedure he also had last summer.
“This was big, just to go back out there and have some contact,” Leonard said after his return to action. “Playing against some great skilled guys I had to check my speed and everything, so it was definitely a big moment for me to come out here and test to see where I am at.”
“It felt amazing just to get back out there after all that I’ve been through. Eager, ready to get back out there now that the time has come. It was a blessing, very thankful to be able to go back out there and play with the guys so I’m happy for it.”
Of course, as the season moves along the observation of Leonard will turn from the inevitable emotional jolt in his season debut to the how he looks.
That’s the reality of life in the NFL, no matter what a player has been through injury wise.
The Colts are paying Leonard 4 times the amount of money any other linebacker makes on the roster.
They need Leonard to show he is back at his normal, elite playmaking, self.
If he proves to not be there, some potentially tough talks will need to happen after the season, with Leonard signed through the 2026 season.
For Week 1 though, Leonard had a season debut in which he showed signs that his playmaking self can still be a frequent occurrence.
“To see (Leonard) out there and the energy he brings, running around, flying around, making plays, getting the crowd fired up, just his intensity level every day that he brings to that practice field and then get to see him back on the field, it was awesome,” Shane Steichen said.
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