INDIANAPOLIS – The voice was measured, as it normally is. But Shaquille Leonard’s frustration was obvious.
During his normal Thursday meeting with the media, the Indianapolis Colts’ veteran linebacker made it clear he’s *back, or very close to being physically back, to being the playmaking ‘backer that routinely generated splash plays for the defense. You know, interceptions, sacks, forced fumbles, tackles for loss.
He believes he’s ahead of the timeline the team had projected as he returned from November back surgery, the second procedure in five months to address disk/nerve issues.
*Capable of doing more to help a defense that ranks No. 28 in yards allowed and No. 32 – that’s dead last – in scoring.
*Unable to be the player he once was because of a complementary role in Gus Bradley’s defense, one that’s different from what it was under previous coordinator Matt Eberflus.
Leonard and the team clearly aren’t on the same wavelength. He’s ready for more.
“Me personally, I think so, for myself,’’ he said. “But I don’t think they think that. They think it’s probably going to be similar, maybe even worse. I feel like each week I prove who I am. I feel like the way I play the game is getting better and better each week. But they say I don’t make enough splash plays, so I guess I’ll still be watching for a little bit.’’
Leonard seldom came off the field during his first four decorated seasons, which included Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2018. He was on the field for every snap in 40 of his 58 starts, had 98% participation in five and at least 90% in three others.
That’s changed dramatically, in part because of his return from back surgery but also because of how he’s being used in Bradley’s scheme.
Not only is Leonard splitting time on early downs with emerging 2019 fifth-round pick E.J. Speed, but he’s rarely on the field on third down.
“E.J. has been doing a great job, so they are leaning more on him,’’ Leonard said. “So I have to take the backseat role and continue to go with it.’’
Heading into Sunday’s meeting with the Carolina Panthers, Leonard has 46 tackles in seven starts, fourth behind Zaire Franklin (102), Julian Blackmon (56) and Kenny Moore II (53). He’s coming off a season-best 11 tackles against New Orleans, but only has two tackles for loss.
None of his other splash plays.
When Leonard attempted to return from his first back surgery last season, it was apparent he hadn’t regained his disruptive form. It was obvious on video.
He insisted that’s not the case now.
“I think I’m very similar to what I’ve seen on tape maybe two years ago,’’ he said.
In 2021, Leonard earned his third straight first-team All-Pro selection on the strength of 122 tackles, 4 interceptions, 8 fumble recoveries, 8 passes defended and 4 tackles for loss.
But that was pre-surgery. And that was in Eberflus’ scheme.
“It’s just different this year,’’ Leonard said. “I’m either hammering the ball back to Zaire or spilling it to the safety. I’m not as free as I once was in the defense before. So it’s kind of hard to see those splash plays because like I said, I’m either hammering the ball back to Z or spilling it back to the safety. I’m not the free guy. I don’t blitz. So it’s kind of tough to make splash when you just have to do your job and then on third down you are sitting on the sideline being a cheerleader. That’s the only difference. I just gotta go out and just continue to be the best version of myself, play with great technique, play with great effort and when the plays come, do my job and hopefully get off the field.”
Bradley and the coaching staff inform Leonard how much playing time he should expect heading into every game.
Leonard insisted he’s proven he can be the cover ‘backer he was previously – versus running backs and tight ends – but that hasn’t altered his role. His playing time has fluctuated between 45-85.7%. He handled 83.3% of the defensive snaps against the Saints.
“They’ll tell me if I’m going to split reps with E.J. on first and second,’’ he said. “I know I’m not in on third down. I kinda know exactly what it is. Like it or not, it is what it is.’’
Prior to the Cleveland Browns game, Bradley said he saw improvement in Leonard’s “movement and change of direction . . . (he was) more involved in making plays. We saw a good step on his part. He’s back to being that emotional player for us, and on the sideline. Like I told you before, I think we’re looking at this big picture for him, so it was a good step for him in the right direction.’’
The bigger picture can’t be ignored.
The Colts made Leonard the NFL’s highest-paid non-pass rushing linebacker in August 2021 when they signed him to a five-year, $98.25 million extension that included $52.5 million in guarantees.
He counts a team-high $19.85 million against this year’s cap, and carries a team-high $20.124 million hit against the 2024 cap.
The Colts might ask Leonard to redo that deal in the offseason. If they take the drastic step of releasing him, they would carry $8 million in dead money but create roughly $12 million in cap savings.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.