INDIANAPOLIS – When the discussion turns to the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates, it takes one to know one.
First and foremost, Darius Leonard is one. Well, was one. The Indianapolis Colts’ 2018 second-round pick became the team’s third Defensive Rookie of the Year and the first since linebacker Duane Bickett in 1985.
Is an Indy repeat brewing?
Leonard is adamant that’s the case, and isn’t averse to serving as Julian Blackmon’s pitchman.
“It’s so crazy,’’ Leonard said following Sunday’s 34-31 overtime win over the Green Bay Packers. “I mean, me personally, he’s defensive rookie of the year. There’s nobody doing what he’s doing.
“We gotta start giving him some credit. I’m tired of nobody giving him any credit. Anytime we’re in a big game, what he do? He steps up. He makes big plays.’’
There were a slew of big plays as the Colts won for the fourth time in five games and pushed their record to 7-3 for the first time since 2013, but none were bigger than Blackmon’s forced fumble on the second play of overtime. Aaron Rodgers dialed up another bubble screen, this time to Marquez Valdes-Scantling to the left of the formation.
“I honestly had a feeling they were going to come back to that screen they had been running quite a few times during the game,’’ Blackmon said.
That recognition led him to creep toward the line of scrimmage from his free safety spot. He split a pair of blockers – tight end Robert Tonyan and wideout Allen Lazard – and hit Valdes-Scantling’s arm, which forced a fumble recovered by DeForest Buckner at the Packers 29.
That’s the definition of a big play.
“It’s a real difficult ask, but Julian is explosive and he does have that knack and he is fearless,’’ coach Frank Reich said. “He continues to make those kind of plays.’’
Four plays later, Rodrigo Blankenship – another of the Colts’ impactful rookie class – delivered a 39-yard field goal, his first NFL game-winner.
Consider Blackmon’s latest argument for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The third-round draft pick collected his first career interception in the Colts’ week 4 win at Chicago, then added another week 6 against Cincinnati. Trailing 31-27, rookie Joe Burrow drove the Bengals to a third-and-6 at the Indy 35 with 46 seconds remaining only to have Blackmon step in front of Tyler Boyd for the game-sealing interception.
Blackmon is one of four rookies with two interceptions. He’s also been credited with 26 tackles and six passes defensed.
Once again, the stage is yours, Darius.
“He’s ballin’ out, making big-time plays in big-time situations,’’ he said. “That’s what a defensive rookie is supposed to do and that’s what he’s doing.
“He’s playing like he’s not a rookie. I always joke around with him, ‘Hey, man, you’re playing at a top-notch level.’ Hopefully he can continue to do that.
“The NFL and everyone around here needs to start giving him credit because he’s one bad joker, man.’’
That’s no joke.
And truth be told, Leonard isn’t the only Colt convinced Blackmon is a worthy candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year. That’s been a driving force for the rookie in question.
“Definitely,’’ Blackmon said with a smile that oozed confidence. “Throughout my playbook I sat down and literally wrote ‘Defensive Rookie of the Year’ all over my book because that’s what I want.
“I truly believe that’s a talent that I have that I can help bring to this team. It’s definitely been on my radar.’’
Further boosting Blackmon’s consideration is the fact he’s 11 months removed from ACL surgery to address an injury sustained in his final collegiate game at Utah.
“You gotta think about how he’s doing it,’’ Leonard said. “He’s coming off an ACL injury. No offseason.’’
Blackmon wasn’t the only Colts’ rookie to impact the win over the Packers. Consider:
- Blankenship’s 39-yard game-winning goal was his fourth of the game after he banged a 50-yard attempt off the crossbar. He’s piled up 94 points, tied for most in the NFL.
- Running back Jonathan Taylor broke out of a three-game mini-slump and led the team with 90 yards on 22 carries. He was a force with 72 yards on 15 carries after halftime as Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni remained committed to the ground game even though the Colts trailed 28-14 at the break.
- Taylor’s team-leading 518 yards are a so-so 20th in the league, but 4th-most among rookies.
- Wideout Michael Pittman Jr. had three catches for a team-high 66 yards, including his first NFL TD, a 45-yard catch-and-run on a crossing pattern. In is last three games, the second-round pick has 14 catches, 223 yards and the one TD on 18 targets.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.