INDIANAPOLIS – Game on the line. The punch. The ball out.
Of course it was Darius Leonard.
That’s what Leonard does.
“If you know me, you know I punch every time I tackle,” a smiling Leonard said after his forced fumble with 28 seconds to go capped another thrilling final-minute win over the Texans.
Leonard’s first responsibility on that game-capping turnover was having running back David Johnson in man-to-man coverage. With outside leverage, Leonard said he got in bad position where he was picked a bit. But as the catch was made by wide receiver Keke Coutee, The Maniac saw the ball in his left hand.
“I had the perfect opportunity right there to get the punch out and win the ball game,” Leonard said after his team’s 10th win of the season. “That’s what I did and thank God our defense hustled.”
It was Kenny Moore first getting to the bouncing ball to keep the loose ball alive, and Bobby Okereke eventually came out of the end zone with it.
The play was indicative of what Matt Eberflus wants out of his defense—constant effort and pursuit to the ball from all 11 defenders.
Under Eberfus, the first defensive draft pick of his tenure was Leonard in 2018.
When the Colts drafted Leonard, part of the major reason why they felt he was worthy of such a high pick—unlike many around the NFL—was because of his long wingspan and penchant for finding that ball.
It was something Leonard first learned at South Carolina State.
“My college coach, Jonathan Saxon, was like, ‘You have long arms. I think you can punch the ball and wrap-up at the same time and still make the tackle,’” Leonard explains. “That’s when I started doing it. And now in the NFL, I practice it every day. You have to make sure you see the back part of the ball before you punch, because if not, you might break your hand or something. You just have to be smart when you do it and in crunch time, that’s when you feel so comfortable doing it.”
Leonard’s 2020 season hasn’t had the same historic production as he delivered in his first two NFL seasons.
Sunday was just his second forced fumble (he hasn’t had an interception in 2020).
But these plays, often late in games, are still all over the Leonard resume in the NFL.
After the Titans blew the Colts out back in Week 10, Leonard decided people need to hear from him.
“No matter what, we are going to fight to the finish,” Leonard said of his message after the last Colts loss. “It just goes back to practicing. Every last series in practice, we always say, ‘Finish practice.’ Then if you finish practice, you finish in games. I always say, ‘Pressure does two things. It busts pipes or makes diamonds.’
“I’m the type of guy, when it’s time for pressure to be there, I want pressure on me. I want to be the one to make the play. Luckily, today, I was the in the right position to make that play.”
Near the end of his Sunday presser, Leonard was asked about DeForest Buckner.
“I thank Chris Ballard almost every time I see him for bringing him in,” the All-Pro linebacker said.
If Colts fans could, I think they would be thanking Ballard for that shrewd selection of Leonard with the 36th overall pick in 2018.