Packers’ Aaron Rodgers provides Colts’ Darius Leonard with extra motivation

Sports

Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard (53) warms up on the field wearing a Salute to Service sweatshirt before an NFL football game between the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Zach Bolinger)

INDIANAPOLIS – Sometimes, Darius Leonard has to look under every rock or in every corner of the social media universe to find motivation.

And sometimes it’s just handed to him.

Thank you, Aaron Rodgers.

The extra oomph! found its way to Leonard earlier this month from an otherwise innocent setting. It was in the aftermath of Green Bay’s 34-17 road win over the San Francisco 49ers, and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sharing a post-game moment with 49ers middle linebacker Fred Warner.

Warner was wired for sound, and Rodgers’ comments would reverberate across the country to Leonard.

“I’m happy for you man, I really mean that. Unfortunately, name recognition means too much. Ain’t nobody better. There really isn’t. You’re the best and everybody knows it. The film don’t lie. You should be All-Pro.”

Words of encouragement to one 2018 draft pick are fightin’ words to another from the same draft class. The Colts snatched Leonard in the second round, 36th overall; Warner was a third-round pick of the 49ers, 70th overall.

“I seen it as soon as he said it,’’ Leonard said Thursday with a widening smile. “You hear things like that, and you get extra motivation to go out and play. I’ve been looking forward to this game ever since he said it.’’

Rodgers and Warner have squared off four times in three seasons, including once in the postseason. Warner’s stat line: 34 tackles, two tackles for loss, 1 sack and one forced fumble.

Now, Leonard gets his first shot at Rodgers, and he’s bringing the Colts’ top-ranked defense with him. Remember, Leonard already is that All-Pro linebacker: first-team as a rookie, second-team last season.

“My first time I want to leave a mark and hopefully change his mind of what he said about (Warner),’’ Leonard said.

He’s never at a loss for words whether it’s in the locker room, the practice field or on game day. As everyone knows, it’s Leonard bringing the juice – physically, emotionally and conversationally.

Might he engage Rodgers Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium?

“Whatever comes out, comes out,’’ Leonard said. “I don’t know if I’m going to say something to him, I don’t know if I’m just going to play.

“I just know I’m looking forward to the matchup.’’

Leonard and his defensive ‘mates are in the midst of a banner season. The defense ranks 1st total yards per game (290.4), 2nd in yards per play (4.8) and passing yards per game (198.7), 3rd in rushing yards per game (91.8) and per attempt (3.5) and 4th in points (19.7).

In the last two weeks, Indy has dealt with Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson, the NFL’s reigning MVP, and Titans running back Derrick Henry, who led the league in rushing last season.

Leonard was asked if Rodgers represents the toughest quarterback the Colts will have faced.

“No. Lamar Jackson is,’’ he said. “He’s a different cat.’’

But so is Rodgers. The evidence includes two MVPs, eight Pro Bowl selections and one world championship. His career stats include an NFL-best 103.1 passer rating, 390 touchdowns (7th all-time) and 49,524 yards (11th).

And here’s the scary part of Rodgers’ game: while ranking tied-9th all-time with TDs on 6.4% of his attempts, he’s suffered just 87 interceptions. The 1.4% interception rate is the NFL’s best. He’s suffered double-digit interceptions only twice in his 13 seasons as Green Bay’s QB1, and not since 2010.

Philip Rivers seemed most impressed with Rodgers’ ability to balance being a gunslinger while still taking care of the football. Rivers, it’s worth noting, ranks 6th in NFL history with 408 TDs, but has 205 interceptions.

“I think the number that stands out to me is just how few interceptions he’s thrown in all these years,’’ he said. “It’s quite remarkable especially with as aggressive as he is and pushing it down the field and what a great passer he is. Pure passer from deep to short.

“It is special.’’

As special as Rodgers is, but he’s not a one-man wrecking crew.

“This is definitely one of the better offenses in the NFL,’’ coach Frank Reich said. “You have the quarterback, Rodgers, you have one of the truly elite receivers in Davante Adams, a top-notch running back (Aaron Jones) and a run game.

“This is definitely the toughest test for our defense all year.’’

The Packers rank 6th in total yards per game (395.8), 6th in passing (274.3) and 3rd in scoring (30.8). Their 277 points are tied for the 3rd-most in team history over the first nine games of a season and they’re the first team in NFL history to average at least 30 points per game with five or fewer turnovers in a season’s first nine games. Green Bay’s five turnovers – two Rodgers interceptions, three fumbles – trail only Tennessee’s four.

There figures to be a strength-versus-strength dynamic in play Sunday. The Rodgers-led Packers’ passing game has generated 36 plays of at least 20 yards (4th in the league) and a league-best 10 that have gained at least 40. The Colts’ defense has allowed 25 receptions of at least 20 yards (tied for 6th-fewest) and only two of at least 40, tied for fewest.

Adams is Rodgers’ go-to guy with 61 receptions, 741 yards and a league-high nine touchdowns despite missing two early games with a hamstring injury. The 6-1, 215-pounder is averaging an NFL-best 105.9 yards in his seven games. He temporarily exited last Sunday’s win over Jacksonville with an ankle injury, but returned in the fourth quarter and notched the game-winning 6-yard TD from Rodgers.

Jones, meanwhile, gives Rodgers a viable run threat even though he’s been dealing with a calf injury. He had a career-high 168 yards in a week 2 win over Detroit, but has averaged just 3.1 yards per attempt in his last three games.

With Rodgers also having wideouts Marquez Valdes-Scantling and perhaps Allen Lazard and tight end Robert Tonyan – an Indiana State product – at his disposal, there should be ample opportunities for Leonard to make plays.

And leave his mark with Rodgers.

“It’s just being a game-changer,’’ Leonard said. “Everybody makes tackles. Everybody can do that. What makes you a great linebacker or a great ballplayer is how well can you change the game?

“And that’s my MO.’’

In 35 career regular-season games, Leonard has complemented a slew of tackles – 344, if you’re counting – with a ton of impact plays: 23 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, seven interceptions, seven forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

“I think that’s what I’ve got over a lot of linebackers,’’ Leonard said. “I’m a game-changer. I don’t know how, but somehow, I get the ball in my hands or I get the ball out of their hands and that’s what makes you a great linebacker, not just making tackles.

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