Darius Leonard, defense rise up in Colts’ upset of Redskins

Courtesy Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Darius Leonard figured he owed his teammates for a botched play.

He repaid them with a game for the ages.

On a screen pass to Adrian Peterson in the second quarter, Leonard broke through Peterson’s escort of offensive linemen but failed on a diving tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Peterson rambled for 21 yards.

“I made a mistake on the screen in the first half,’’ Leonard said in the locker room after Sunday’s game. “I knew what the play was.’’

Coodinator Matt Eberflus was quick to offer encouragement after Leonard and the Indianapolis Colts defense returned to the sideline.

“He was like, ‘You have to make that play. Just keep working,’’’ Leonard said.

The second-round draft pick took the advice to heart. He was the four-quarter catalyst as the Colts’ defense played a starring role in Sunday’s 23-9 win over the Washington Redskins in FedExField in Landover, Md.

“Unbelievable,’’ coach Frank Reich said of Leonard.

“That’s D,’’ added safety Malik Hooker of his teammate.

Leonard authored a busy stat line: 18 tackles, including 15 solos, 1 sack, 1 tackle for loss, one defended pass and one forced fumble. His 18 tackles were the most by a Colt since Kavell Conner’s 18 at Tampa Bay Oct. 3, 2011, and the most by a Colts rookie since at least 1994.

“I knew I let the team down on that one play and I never want to do it again, so I kind of kept it going,’’ Leonard said. “I’m just working hard, taking each play play-by-play and trying to help my team win.’’

General manager Chris Ballard was high on Leonard, an ultra-productive player at South Carolina State, heading into the draft. He selected him with the first of his four second-round picks, No. 36 overall.

“I remember Chris Ballard talking about (Leonard), having his eye on him in the draft,’’ Reich said. “And not just talking about this guy’s play-making ability (and) his athletic ability, but (having) the kind of football player character we want on this team.

“Man, what a day.’’

It’s virtually impossible not to notice Leonard on the field. He possesses quickness to close on the football and the sideline-to-sideline speed to pursue it.

“He’s an athletic linebacker,’’ Hooker said. “He’s capable of doing a lot of things and it showed out there. He’s out there making plays.’’

Leonard’s aggressiveness was contagious.

The defense, still in its formative stages, put the hammer down on the Alex Smith-led Washington offense. It failed to allow a touchdown for the first time since week 15 of 2016 (a 34-6 win at Minnesota) and held the Redskins to Dustin Hopkins’ field goals on both of Andrew Luck’s interceptions.

After gouging Arizona for a league-high 182 rushing yards last week, the Redskins were limited to 65 yards by the Colts, and 29 were contributed by wideout Jamison Crowder. Adrian Peterson needed 11 carries to post 20 yards after going for 96 against Arizona.

“We had an emphasis this week on running to the ball,’’ Hooker said. “(Peterson) is a great running back and we had to get all of the guys to the ball and make the hit on him.

“We feel like we can get better.’’

From Luck’s vantage point, the defense was more than good enough.

“They did an amazing job, especially in that third quarter there where we went, someone told me, four or five drives in a row for like 18 total yards,’’ he said. “They didn’t give up a touchdown; (just a) couple of field goals.

“Man, what a great job they did keeping us in the driver’s seat it felt like. It’s a fun unit to watch. They’re only going to get better. They’re young, they’re fast, they’re athletic, they’re tough.’’

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