INDIANAPOLIS – In the biggest playmaking slump of his career, Shaquille Leonard points to a change in his role under defensive coordinator Gus Bradley as a major reason why.
Leonard has now gone 8 straight games without an interception, forced fumble or fumble recovery. That’s the longest stretch in his career without recording one of those turnovers.
In playing 10 total games over the last two years, Leonard has had just two total tackles for loss, to go along with the very quiet takeaway numbers.
What is the reason for that playmaking not coming close to what Leonard was putting up at a historic pace in his first 4 NFL seasons
The 6th year pro doesn’t point to lingering effects from back/ankle issues. Leonard points more to the change in scheme, and his specific role.
“I think I’m very similar to what I’ve seen on tape, maybe two years ago,” Leonard said on Thursday. “But it just different this year. I’m either hammering the ball back to Zaire (Franklin) or spilling it to the safety. I’m not as free as I once was in the defense before. So it’s kind of hard to see those splash plays because, like I said, I’m either hammering the back to Z or spilling it back to the safety. I’m not the free guy. I don’t blitz. So it’s kind of tough to make splash plays, when you just have to do your job and then on third down you are sitting on the sideline being a cheerleader.
“That’s the only difference. I just have to go out and continue to just be the best version of myself, play with great technique, play with great effort and when the plays come, do my job and hopefully get off the field.”
Earlier this season, Bradley pointed to November as a time where Leonard would start to show his normal self.
But Leonard already thinks he’s there.
“Personally, I think so,” Leonard says if he feels like his normal self. “But I don’t think they think that. They think it’s probably going to be similar, maybe even worse. I’m just going to go out and play as many snaps as I can and go from there.
“I feel like each week I prove who I am. I feel like the way I play the game is getting better and better each week. But they say I don’t make enough splash plays, so I guess I’ll still be watching for a little bit.”
Leonard is coming off the field on third downs right now, but he seems to be pleased with how he is looking in coverage.
“I feel good, man,” Leonard says. “There was a point, could I do man coverage? And then as I watched the tape, I haven’t gotten beat in man coverage yet. I’m guarding tight ends and then I’m guarding running backs. Felt like I did a good job with Alvin Kamara last week. He’s a very elusive back. They use him more like a receiver. Once I did that, I thought if I can do this right here, I’m perfectly fine.”
Ironically, after missing a Week Four game due to a groin injury, Leonard has seen some higher snap counts as of late. These are Leonard’s snap counts the last three weeks: 81%, 72%, 83%. That compares to these 4 snap counts to start the year: 86%, 71%, 69%, 45%.
Whereas Leonard played virtually every defensive snap from 2018-21.
But since needing two back surgeries, the first coming in June 2022 and the second one coming in November 2022, Leonard’s playing time has been scaled back. Of course, this also coincided with Matt Eberflus leaving the Colts after the ’21 season, and Gus Bradley becoming the new defensive coordinator.
“Like it or not, it is what it is,” Leonard said of his new, more limited role.
“It’s most definitely a different scheme. And then splitting time. E.J has been doing a great job, so they are leaning more on him. So I have to take the back seat role and continue to go with it.”
Given the contract Leonard carries, the second half of this season will be very interesting to watch to determine what the future looks like for No. 53 in Indianapolis.
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