The Colts will take the field in their home opener without the 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year. Darius Leonard will sit out the week three matchup against the Atlanta Falcons with a lingering concussion.
Losing a First-Team All-Pro linebacker is a huge blow, especially when faced with the task of slowing a prodigious passing attack helmed by the underrated Matt Ryan. While Ryan has been off to an up and down start in 2019, turning in 5 touchdowns and 5 picks, he is perfectly capable of dissecting a defense, and losing a key player is not desirable.
The onus will fall on rookie Bobby Okereke, and likely to some extent, E.J. Speed, to fill in with Leonard sidelined. We don’t quite know what that will look like in terms of real on-field play, but Frank Reich spoke highly of the way Okereke has looked so far in practice.
Colts will look to rookie Bobby Okereke to fill Darius Leonard's stead. Asked how he looked last Sunday in Tennessee, here's how Frank Reich responded: "Like he needs more play time." Colts encouraged with the progress from the rookie out of Stanford.— Zak Keefer (@zkeefer) September 20, 2019
While the Falcons haven’t been a great run team, the young linebackers will need to be disciplined, because Devonta Freeman certainly has the ability to break a big play if he is overlooked, and rotational back Ito Smith could also give the Colts fits if they aren’t making great tackles and diagnosing plays quickly.
Still, there is reason to be optimistic about Okereke. Like Leonard he is a freakish athlete who has long arms and the kind of ability to get into passing lanes and cause disruption. Additionally, he is a virtual unknown, and it seems likely that the Falcons will test him early and often Sunday. If he rises to the challenge, it could be the chance to make his mark on the team.
There may not be anyone quite like Darius Leonard on this team. No one has his drive, leadership, or playmaking ability in exactly the same way. However, unlike in years past, there are behind him a group of very athletic and eager guys who are going to be on the hunt for their chance. This isn’t the clearance bin of 2017’s linebackers, and the prospect of seeing them step up is a little bit exciting. When the dust settles on Sunday, we’ll see if they can really play.