In just three NFL seasons, Colts linebacker Darius Leonard has become one of the most prominent players at his position. The 2018 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, a two-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro, Leonard has amassed 15 sacks, 42 total pressures, 322 tackles, 45 stops, and three touchdowns allowed to seven interceptions in coverage. Leonard recently spoke with Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar about his new Maniac Foundation, how he wants to help others, his NFL career to date, and what he still wants to prove. Then, we dove into Leonard’s tape to determine what makes him such a great player in several different ways.
Doug Farrar: Talk to me about the Maniac Foundation, and what you hope to accomplish with it.
Darius Leonard: Just thinking about the things I’ve been through in my life, and all the people who have helped me along my journey. My baseball coach told me to never forget where I came from, and I’ll always find a way to give back as much as possible. My goal is to help almost every family in need — every child in need. Right now, we’re trying to start our Math Maniacs, training kids to fall back in love with doing math. Sitting in front of a computer, sometimes you can get sidetracked, and you don’t want to do it, so we’re trying to find ways for people to have fun doing schoolwork. With COVID, and everyone being inside, trying to get people to go outside and focusing on their health. Health is one of the main things people fall asleep on.
The third thing is helping families in need with food. That’s just the dream — the dream is to help everybody. I come in, I do what I do, I try to make as much money and have as much fun as I can, and I try to give back as much as I can. I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today without the people around me who helped me out, pulling me up when I was down, and I’m just trying to return the same favor. I know what it’s like to not have too much, to not have food on the table, so I’m just trying to make sure kids don’t have to go through the same things I’ve gone through.
DF: You were a second-round pick out of South Carolina State in 2018, the fifth linebacker chosen in that draft after Roquan Smith, Tremaine Edmunds, Leighton Vander Esch, and Rashaan Evans. But you made an impact right away, led the NFL in combined and solo tackles in your rookie season, and won Defensive Rookie of the Year. What was it that allowed you to become such a crucial part of the Colts’ defense so quickly?
DL: Luckily, being drafted by the Colts. They play a 4-3, and the scheme is perfect for me — it allows me to run around and make plays. I think with me, I came in hungry. I didn’t have a big name coming out, and I wanted to prove a point. HBCU guys can play at the next level. We don’t get enough credit — people think that HBCUs don’t have athletes, so I had that chip on my shoulder to prove everybody wrong. I never got complacent. Going to work day in and day out, and each day, I tried to get better. I had a guy there, Anthony Walker, who helped me every step of the way, and I always talk about him when it comes to my success.
I remember in my rookie season, before training camp, when I popped my [quadriceps muscle], every day, before the day started, it was me, coach [defensive coordinator Matt] Eberflus, and [linebackers] coach [Dave] Borgonzi, we were in the indoor, just doing a walkthrough, and walking through every play, making sure I was fully understanding every play in the playbook. So, when I got on the field, it was just like, ‘Okay — now, I’ve got to compete. Now, I’m competing against the best of the best, and I’ve got to prove that I can play.’ That was the mindset coming in — earn a job, keep a job, and make some money for the family.
DF: Matt Eberflus became the Colts’ defensive coordinator the same year you came into the league, and I’ve always been impressed by the consistency and discipline of his defenses. What makes him a good coach, and do you think he’ll be a head coach eventually?
DL: Coach ‘Flus is very detailed. He never walks by a mistake. He’ll never let a player pass by a mistake. Everything he talks about — he holds you to a standard. There’s not a guy who comes in who doesn’t play hard. You’ve got to run to the ball, or you’ll be sitting on the bench. He holds everybody up to the same standard, no matter who you are. That’s what makes him a great coach, because you can have a big-time name, but you have to play for the team. You can’t play for yourself. He makes sure everybody buys into the system. Sometimes, you have to put your body on the line so someone else can make a play. He’s very detailed about everything he does.
Do I see him as a head coach? No question. I’m surprised he’s still a defensive coordinator now, because of how smart he is and how well he understands the game. After my rookie season, I thought he was gone, and each year, after the season, he’s having these head coaching interviews. I do see him as a head coach, and I do think he will succeed as a head coach. For me personally — it might sound a little selfish, but [Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker] Derrick Brooks had the same defensive coordinator his whole career [Monte Kiffin, from 1996 through 2008; Rusty Tillman was Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator in 1995], and he played very well in that two-high scheme. Hopefully, I can have him my whole career, because I think it’s why I keep getting better. When you’re in the same system for so long, you understand it. You understand how people are trying to attack you. I wish him the best, but I hope he stays here.
DF: Modern linebackers have to do so many things, and you’ve been really effectively versatile in your career. Were there things you had to learn and develop when you got to the NFL — things about coverage, or playing from the slot, or defending the run?
DL: For me, especially on third down, it was my first time where I’m almost a defensive lineman. I have to make sure I know how to attack offensive linemen. I have to know how to pass-rush. And then when I’m outside, covering a slot receiver, you’ve got to know who you’re covering. You have to understand with quarterbacks, especially if it’s an Aaron Rodgers or a Deshaun Watson, they see a linebacker in the slot… not like it’s a mismatch, but they take their best receiver and put him in the slot, you have to understand that they’re going to pick on you. You have to understand what routes are going to come. You have to understand how they’re going to attack you. That’s where it comes down to film study.
And then, when you’re playing in the box, you have to be disciplined and make sure you’re reading your keys. Because there’s a lot of play-action and outside zone action. Then, it’s either boot, or play-action, or a dropback pass, and you have to make sure you understand that. Because if you get caught up in the run, they’re going to hit you right where you’re supposed to be. It’s like any other job — you’ve got to be disciplined, you’ve got to understand the game plan, and you’ve got to be sure that you understand how to attack the guy that’s in front of you.
DF: The Colts have made the playoffs in two of the three seasons you’ve been there. What do this team need to do to get to and win the Super Bowl?
DL: Be consistent. When you look at the games we lost, it’s nothing our opponents did — it’s everything we did. Especially on the defensive side of the ball, when there’s a bust or you jump offside — things like that. You can’t have that. If you want to be a Super Bowl contender, you cannot shoot yourself in the foot. We have to be more disciplined, trust in the game plan, play 110% every single play, and find ways to take the ball away. We want to be the No. 1 hustling team. We want to be the No. 1 takeaway defense. We want to be the No. 1 defense. And if we want to do that, that’s what’s going to help us win the Super Bowl, the division, everything we have to do.
DF: Is Carson Wentz the guy to help get you there?
DL: Damn skippy! He’s a monster, man. Just watching him in OTAs and stuff, he’s got a cannon for an arm, and he’s huge. He looks like a tight end. I was eating breakfast one morning beside him, and he was so big, I didn’t know it was him, because everybody had their masks on. Then, somebody said something to him, and I’m like, ‘Damn. This dude is huge!’ You would think that he’s been in this locker room for about seven years. He has this presence about him and his leadership role, and that’s what you need in a quarterback room. We have a great offensive line that’s going to protect him. We have the best backfield in the NFL, in my opinion, and we have these great skill guys on the outside. He came into a perfect place to have success. We believe in him. We know who he is, and we know what he can be. I can’t wait to see what he and [head] Coach Frank [Reich] are going to step up and do.
DF: Before we get into these five plays, is there a play that comes to mind for you that defines who you are as a player? If you could show the world one play that says, “This is Darius Leonard,” which one would it be?
DL: The best play I’ve ever made was definitely in my rookie season, playing against the Raiders. We were in a back-and-forth battle, there was five minutes left in the ballgame, we had just scored, but we were struggling defensively. We call up a blitz, and next thing you know, in the open gap, I punched the ball out. I think that’s one of the best defensive plays I’ve seen — it doesn’t get talked about much, but that’s definitely at the top of my list.
Week 13, 2019: Third sack of Ryan Tannehill
DF: This is one of three sacks in this game where you were credited with either a full sack or half a sack, and the thing that impresses me here is how you're able to get around the edge as if you were a designated edge-rusher. Not exactly what you expect from an off-ball linebacker. I recently did a tape piece with Lavonte David in which he showed the same ability. What combination of traits do you have to have to do this from an off-ball position?DL: For one, when you're going up against people like that [offensive linemen], you have to have speed. You have to be able to set things up, and I'm blessed with long arms. I have great reach, and going around, you have to have the athleticism to bend the edge and defeat the guy in front of you. You always have to have a plan when you're going into an offensive lineman or a running back. In your mind, there's a will -- you've got to get to the quarterback. You've got to make sure you make a play to get guys off the field. DF: I was doing a piece this week on the NFL's best edge-rushers, and last season, quarterbacks threw from zero- to three-step drops on 60.8% of their total attempts. So, if you're bending the edge and you take too much time, you're not going to get there. How does the increase in quick game affect what you do when you're rushing the passer, and your defensive mindset overall?DL: With three-step, everything's quick, so it depends on where you're coming from. If I'm one-on-one with a running back, I'm just going to try and run through him so I can get to the quarterback quicker, or get my hands up to deflect the pass or disrupt the quarterback. You've got to be on your A-game; you've got to get there as quickly as possible. A lot of quarterbacks aren't mobile, so they're doing three-step to keep the pass rush down. A lot of people have to shorten up their aiming point. That's why when we do pass-rush drills, there's a cone there, and they say, 'Okay, you can't go around the edge and bend around a hoop.' No, there's an aiming point, and you have to make sure you have your toes and everything aimed at that point. Get there as quickly as you can, and try to get the ball away from the quarterback.
Week 12, 2020: Sack of Ryan Tannehill
DF: Fast-forward to 2020, and you're still harassing that Tannehill guy. This play really shows your range -- the Titans are showing everything to their right, you follow it, and you then go after Tannehill as he boots out to the other side. Matching him step for step. How do you combine speed with play recognition on plays like this so that you don't overstep or take yourself out of the play?DL: It's more the offensive linemen. They'll give everything away. When it's play-action, they can't be downfield, so we call that EOP -- Elephants on Parade. When you get that full action with Tennessee, you know what they're running. Ryan Tannehill, it's very rare where you'll see him just drop back and pass. He has this thing he does when he's faking the ball, and you pick up on that. It's just a lot of film study, and when the game comes, you have to understand what you see. See it quick, and be able to react. DF: Yeah, the linemen take about three steps, and you've got it. Before Tannehill even starts booting the other way.DL: Yes, sir. DF: So, you're picking up on the movement of the linemen, like, nobody's going downfield so it's not an RPO, or what is the key here?DL: Yeah, I go key-to-key. When I say key-to-key, it's my eyes in the backfield, but I take a peek at the tight end as quickly as I possibly can. If he stays in to block, I know it's a boot nine times out of 10. If they stretch that way and he's running to the boundary, a lot of the time, you're not going to run to the boundary, because you don't have enough field to stretch and cut. So it's, where is the play on the field, who's back there, and what's the formation. You have to be able to ID the formation right when they break the huddle, and in your mind, you have the plays they run out of that formation, and you've just got to trust your gut and just read your keys and be able to react. You can't think out there; you just have to react.
Week 17, 2019: Interception of Gardner Minshew
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.
Wild-card round, 2020: Josh Allen stop
DF: This is an interesting defensive look for you -- it's a third-and-10 play, the Bills have the ball at their own 11, and you stop Josh Allen as a runner before he can get the first down. On a play like this, where you let the mesh concept go by, is your primary responsibility to keep your eyes on Allen and stop him from running for a first down?DL: We were playing zone. You take away the deep shot, and you let the crossers go, because there's a cornerback sitting on the outside. You know that [Allen] is a runner, and in the plays before this, they [the Bills] were saying that I was too small of a linebacker -- that I didn't weigh enough. So, this was my perfect opportunity right there to nip that in the bud. No matter what size you are, you can still get stuck in a hole. I knew that he was going to pull the ball down when he did. As a linebacker going against a quarterback, that's one of the toughest things you can do, because quarterbacks are protected the whole game. Some quarterbacks will slide when they get to you, and you're going for a hit, and you'll get a penalty for it. I was looking at [Allen's] hips, and I saw that he was trying to shake me. I didn't bite on that, and at that point, he had no choice but to try and run through me. I was not going to let that happen. Hamstring tackle, got my shoulders below his hips, and I tried to pick up a leg and just run my feet a little bit.
Week 10, 2020: Derrick Henry stop
DF: I wanted to ask you specifically about the challenge of dealing with Derrick Henry. There's this crazy stat of his where he has more yards after contact over the last two seasons than any other running back has pure rushing yards. But based on the tape I watched, when you're tackling Henry, he doesn't seem to be able to do much after that contact. What are the keys to limiting after-contact productivity against a guy who's so good at it?DL: I always tell him, man, he's a defensive end playing running back. He's huge. When I'm playing against him, I'm 215 or 220 pounds. But I know that you can't run without your legs. If you notice the way I tackle, I'm not the biggest guy, so my technique is to squeeze, wrap, and roll no matter what. Like I said, I'm blessed with these long arms, so I make sure that my shoulders are at his thigh level, and I make sure that I wrap up, and I roll him. Once I gator-roll him, there's no way he can go anywhere if I have both legs trapped. He's very powerful, but I've yet to see anybody run without their legs, so that's my game plan when I go against him. Try to bring as much as I can from behind my pads, and squeeze, wrap, and roll from there.