Chris Ballard appears to have struck gold with his 2018 draft class. First rounder Quenton Nelson has improved every game and is a big part of why Andrew Luck has had the best protection of his career this season. Speaking of that protection, second rounder Braden Smith has been more than solid at RT. Kemoko Turay playing at defensive end has also stood out rushing the passer on defense. Rookie running backs Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins have played big roles in the offense this season.
Among the stars that Ballard has seemingly landed, none of them have had the impact of second round pick Darius Leonard.
Considered by many as one of the biggest reaches in the entire draft, Leonard has proved since Day 1 that he was the right selection for the Colts in the second round. On the season, Leonard leads the entire NFL in tackles— 79 tackles— despite missing a game due to an injury. Against the Bills, Leonard lit up the scoreboard with 17 tackles— 12 solo— and a fumble recovery.
Now, I typically style these film rooms with positives and negatives from the player’s past performance. There was so little negative to write about, though, that I decided to make it a film room on Leonard’s positives and where I’ve seen the most improvement from him this season. So let’s jump into this weeks film room and see why Leonard is playing like one of the best young linebackers in football this year.
Leonard has been a tackling machine this year. The Tampa 2 scheme has definitely played a role in his high tackle numbers but ultimately, Leonard is making the plays. He is a sure tackler and is excellent at coming downhill and wrapping up ball carriers, against the run and the pass. He has a natural feel for defending the run which allows for him to be in the right position most of the time.
Our first clip shows exactly what we’ve seen from Leonard all season. The Colts’ cover 2 scheme is designed to drop the linebackers in zone coverage over the middle to prevent intermediate, middle of the field throws. In theory, this is optimal as it keeps all underneath throws right in front of the linebackers. Leonard makes this scheme look ingenious as he routinely comes downhill to make tackles. He limits so many potential big plays to small gains due to his speed and tackling ability.
Here, Leonard bursts out of his zone to make a tackle on an underneath throw. Most importantly, this is an open field tackle. It is so important for linebackers to make these one-on-one tackles in space, as a missed tackle can result in a big play. Leonard rarely makes those mistakes. Once he gets a player in his sights, he typically makes the tackle. Most rookies fail to break down properly or aim their bodies at the ball carrier incorrectly. Darius Leonard does not have that problem.
Leonard has excelled as a run defender. The Colts have a top 5 rush defense in all of football in regards of yards per rush. Leonard is aggressive and shoots gaps well. When he is able to get a hand on the ball carrier, he consistently has enough strength to drag the runner down. His tackling ability shows out in this area as well.
In this first clip, Leonard shoots the gap to the left side of the screen. The run is to the right so Leonard is forced to fight off his block and work back to the other side of the formation. Leonard spins off of his blocker then quickly gets back up field and makes the tackle. The ability to work off of his block and locate the ball carrier is what makes Leonard so good in run defense. He always has his head on a swivel and is constantly locating and pursuing the ball carrier. Great play to work back to the ball after initially being out of the play.
This next clip starts with the Bills running an inside trap play where the tight end is tasked with blocking Leonard. Leonard diagnoses the play and shoots the A gap. He blows up the lead block from the tight end and is able to get a hand on the runner and bring him down. This play is just great because it is designed to take Leonard out of the play. Where he wins is how he diagnoses it quickly and realizes he needs to initiate the contact on the lead blocker. Great play to blow up the block and still bring down the runner.
One major part of Leonard’s game that has been severely overlooked this season is his pure effort on every single play. You don’t lead the NFL in tackles by being the most skilled or being in the best scheme. Those factors obviously play a large role but having the ability to make tackles all over the field takes pure effort. Leonard showcases his excellent effort and pure heart on every single play.
Look at how much ground Leonard covers here on his fumble recovery. He could have easily given up chase once he saw Mike Mitchell make the tackle, but he continues the pursuit and is able to be in prime position to recover the fumble. Sure there is athleticism involved with covering this much ground, but the effort to continually pursue the play is commendable.
Again look at the effort here by Leonard to make a play almost thirty yards down the field. He is well out of the play once this ball is thrown down the field. Yet, he never breaks sprint and is able to get all the way down the field for the tackle. Plays like this just contribute to why he leads the NFL in tackles at this point.
Where he has improved
Leonard struggled early in the season in pass coverage. By struggled, I mean struggled compared to how he is playing most of the time. The main issue I had early in the year was that he wasn’t feeling out plays or really anticipating much in pass defense.
A lot of what he was doing was just sitting back in his zone and making tackles rather than anticipating what the quarterback was doing and breaking up passes. Although I still see struggles here, I think he has improved greatly. He is disrupting pass routes more regularly now and anticipating much better. He is trusting his instincts and film study much more as the season progresses.
This first clip showcases the Colts in a rare coverage; man defense. Leonard is matched up with the running back. Even before the ball is snapped, Leonard is able to diagnose what his match up is going to do. Rather than just running to the running back to cover him, Leonard runs to a spot that he believes the running back’s route will take him to. Even though the quarterback never looks Leonard’s way here, he is in perfect position from trusting his instincts in coverage.
This next rep shows Leonard disrupting a play from zone coverage. The Bills have a double slant concept called and Leonard notices it right away.Rather than just sitting in his zone and waiting for the ball though, Leonard jams the inside slant. This disruption of the route contributes to the quarterback holding the ball a second longer and allows for the pressure to make a play.
Also, if the ball would not have been batted at the line, Kenny Moore could have been able to peel off the inside guy and make a play on the outside due to Leonard’s heads up play.
Patience in run defense
One major improvement that Leonard has made from the preseason to now is his patience in run defense. Rather than over-committing on plays, Leonard is now sifting through traffic and keeping his head up. He is doing much more reading of plays rather than just shooting gaps and hoping he is running into the ball carrier. This has resulted in even more tackles than when he started the season.
Here is the best example I was able to find from the last game. Leonard reads the play and strafes down the line. Rather than ducking under the block or shooting up field to force the play inside, Leonard calmly resets then stacks and sheds the lineman to make the tackle. He always keeps his eyes on the ball carrier while he is shedding the blocker. This maturity shows development in this area. Great sign of improvement.
So, what did we learn about Darius Leonard? Kind of what we already knew, that he is playing really well. He is excelling in a scheme tailored to his strengths and is taking full advantage of the early playing time he is getting.
He excels as a tackler in open space and is great at plugging up holes in run defense. His natural athleticism combined with great effort only add to his historic tackle totals this far into the season. He is continually improving in pass defense as he is learning to trust his instincts more each and every game.
Overall Leonard is perhaps the brightest part about a 2-5 football team. He has all the ability in the world to be a top linebacker in this league and at the moment he certainly is playing like it. It has gotten to the point where we are shocked if he doesn’t get 15 tackles a game. Leonard will continue to improve and looks to be a staple of the Colts’ defense for many many years.