INDIANAPOLIS – In another sport, we’d call it Darius Leonard’s “sweet spot.’’ It’s when a circumstance – any circumstance – casts him and his colleagues in a bad light.
Which brings us to Saturday’s first-round AFC playoff game in Orchard Park, N.Y. In one corner are the Buffalo Bills: 13-3, the No. 2 seed, arguably the NFL’s hottest bunch heading into the postseason.
In the other corner: Leonard and his Indianapolis Colts. They’ve won 11 games for the first time since 2014, but are the No. 7 seed and the third of three AFC wild-card entrants.
Oh, oddsmakers favor the Bills by roughly 7 points.
Take it away, Darius. Remember, he’s admitted to scouring the far reaches of social media for any slight, snub, nugget of disrespect. Motivation – real or perceived – always lurks just around the corner.
“I feel like for me there’s never no pressure,’’ the team’s Pro Bowl linebacker said Wednesday on a Zoom conference call. “Like coach said, when you’re the 7 seed, everybody expects you to fail. That’s the mindset. Everybody’s sharing that: you failed.’’
A particular Internet posting grabbed Leonard’s attention.
“Crazy that everybody said that the Bills was going to win,’’ he said. “Everybody’s counting us out, so we just go in there and just be us.
“We don’t have to do nothing more, we don’t have to do nothing less. Just be us, control what we can control and that is playing great fundamental football and hopefully we can come out with a victory.
“But pressure? Nah. We don’t have any pressure on us.’’
The last time Leonard and the Colts visited the playoffs, their journey ended in Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium in a 2018 AFC divisional round game. Indy never really was competitive. It was 14-0 at the end of the first quarter, 24-10 at the half and 31-13 at the end.
What was Leonard’s takeaway from the experience? He led the Colts with 14 tackles, including 10 solos, and a fumble recovery and would be selected the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.
“Learn what went wrong,’’ he said. “I think the first half we didn’t play well, but the second half we stepped up.
“We’ve just got to start early. We’ve been playing good. I think we’ll continue to play good and just let people, everybody who doubted us sit down, grab a beer and just watch our defense run around and make plays.’’
That figures to be easier said than done.
Major challenge for defense
As much as Leonard is bullish on the defense, the numbers argue to the contrary. After a dominant first half to the season, the group has taken several steps back.
“I think we’ve just got to play a whole game,’’ offered defensive end Justin Houston. “We’ve been playing halves. Our weakness is having a complete game from first quarter to fourth quarter.
“And we know in these playoffs that’s what you’ve got to play. To win a game, you’ve got to play four quarters.’’
Not dominant Baltimore and Pittsburgh for 30 minutes, then have no answers over the final two quarters. It was impressive to hold Aaron Rodgers to a second-half field goal, but how about the three first-half TDs he delivered for the Green Bay Packers? Shutting out the Texans in the second half at Houston was a major statement, but it still took Deshaun Watson fumbling the shotgun snap in the shadow of the goal line in the closing seconds to avoid what would have been a crippling loss.
“We’ve played great defense for about four games,’’ Leonard said. “I think we’re going to go out and just play as well as we can and just let the chips fall.
“Hopefully we’ll play a whole game great, play a half, it is what it is. Just hopefully come out with a victory. That’s all that really matters.’’
Saturday’s first-round game pits one of the NFL’s truly elite offenses versus a defense that’s been on his heels over the final seven games.
The Bills’ offense ranks 2nd in total yards (396.4), 3rd in passing (288.8) and 2nd in scoring (31.1). During its current six-game win streak, it’s churning out 38.3 points and 429.7 yards per game.
“He has a cannon,’’ Leonard said. “I watched an incomplete pass earlier today. He dropped back, he was on his 25-yard line and he launched it off his back foot 60 yards. He’s just got a cannon.
“He’s got some great, great skills guys and they know how to use that offense to make him look as good as he’s been playing.’’
In any other season, Allen would be a front-runner in the MVP conversation: 4,544 yards, 37 TDs, 10 interceptions and a 107.2 passer rating. All are franchise records. He’s also Buffalo’s 3rd-leading rusher with 421 yards and a team-high eight TDs on 102 carries. He’s the only player in NFL history with 4,000-plus passing yards, 30+ passing TDs and eight-plus rushing TDs in a season.
Stefon Diggs, meanwhile, is the first Bill to lead the NFL in receptions (127) and yards (1,535).
When you think of Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs, think of Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams.
It’s no coincidence the line of demarcation to the Colts’ defensive slide was the week 11 meeting with Rodgers and the Packers. That’s when they began facing elite QB1’s on a weekly basis: Rodgers, Ryan Tannehill, Deshaun Watson (twice), Derek Carr, Ben Roethlisberger.
In the first nine games of the season, the defense statistically was the NFL’s best: 1st in total yards (290.4), 3rd against the run (91.8), 2nd against the pass (198.7), 4th in scoring (19.7).
But over the last seven games, it’s ranked in the bottom third, or worse, in several significant categories: 24th in total yards (385.7), 31st against the pass (313.3) and tied-for 22nd in scoring (26.5).
Quarterbacks completed 62.2% of their passes with a 78.9 rating in the first nine, but have gouged the Colts for 69.2% accuracy and a 102.5 rating over the last seven. That 102.5 rating is the 8th-highest allowed during that stretch.
The pass rush has generated 40 sacks – tied for 12th-most – but too often it’s been hit and miss. There have been 19 over the last seven games, but that includes a a season-high 6 against Jacksonville and 5 in each meeting with the Texans.
“When teams have had success against us in the pass game in recent weeks, it hasn’t just been one thing,’’ coach Frank Reich said. “Am I concerned? No. Do I think this is a very good passing team that we’re going against? Yeah, this is a dynamic quarterback and a dynamic passing attack.
“We have had some good days versus some dynamic quarterbacks. We played Aaron Rodgers earlier in the year and played him pretty well. I am confident in our players and our coaches that we can put together a plan and execute a plan versus an elite quarterback and a hot offense like we are facing.’’
Leonard always motivated
Again, Leonard never has a problem finding motivation. Among those he’ll take into New Era Field: playing against Tremaine Edmunds.
For those with a short memory, the Colts selected Leonard in the second round of the 2018 draft, with the 36th overall pick. He was the fifth linebacker selected.
The other four were first-rounders: Roquan Smith, Chicago, 8th; Edmunds, 16th; Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas, 19th; and Rashaan Evans, Tennessee, 22nd. We consider Denver’s Bradley Chubb, the 5th overall pick, a pass-rushing end.
“Every linebacker that was picked before me, I beat them,’’ Leonard said.
His Colts have beaten the Bears (this season), the Bills (2018), Dallas (2018) and Titans.
“What’s funny is every pick that a linebacker ahead of me I had that grudge,’’ Leonard said. “I was cleaning out my room in my house the other day and I had a jersey frame break. Happens if was the Buffalo game. I had a big game there.’’
In the Colts’ 37-5 win, Leonard led the defense with 17 tackles, including 12 solos. Edmunds finished with seven tackles.
“I want to outplay them,’’ he said. “I want to show the opposing team what they could have had. If you think that guy’s better than me, I want to go out and prove that I’m better.
“Yes, he’s a great linebacker. We (were) at the Pro Bowl together. He’s a great guy. But on the field, I’m competing against the opposing offense and I’m competing against him because I have a point to prove. Every linebacker that y’all say is better than me, I want to go out each and every week to show that I can be better and I can outwork them.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.