KRAVITZ: While we were all waiting for the usual collapse, Leonard and the defense changed the Colts' script

(WTHR Photo/Dave Calabro)
Bob Kravitz


Admit it: You were waiting for the collapse. Of course you were; why wouldn't you? You're a student of history, right? And here's what history told us: In the previous 10 games when the Colts had a halftime lead, they had gone 2-8, including last week's exercise in self-sabotage when they turned a 23-10 lead into a 34-23 loss at home to the Bengals.

And then something strange and yes, pretty wonderful and totally unusual, happened.

The Colts, led by Pro Bowler-to-be Darius Leonard and a swarming, overwhelming defense, grabbed the 14-3 halftime lead by the neck and never let go. Even after a punchless third quarter during which the Colts managed just five yards of offense, the defense played the best game we've seen from a Colts' D since a 34-6 pasting of the Vikings in Minnesota in December of 2016. The final was 21-9, and while the score disparity wasn't that great, it became apparent from start that the Colts were not going to let Washington sniff the endzone.

Let me repeat: The Colts got a lead. The Colts held a lead. The Colts won a football game. And they did it without Andrew Luck having to play heroically.

I know, it's weird, right?

"I think there was probably a moment in there when some people were saying, 'Oh, here we go again,' when the third quarter started,'' said Frank Reich, who earned his first-ever victory as an NFL head coach. "It probably went through everybody's minds and that's fair. That's fair until we prove otherwise, and today was just step one to proving otherwise.''

Maybe the worm is turning for this organization. Maybe the concept of finishing is more than just a saying on the walls of the Colts' practice-facility locker room. Yeah, it's just one game, and there has to be more games just like this, but for one day, the Colts appeared to consign their wretched second-half history to the dustbin of history.

It was a tour de force from the defensive line to the back end, but the man who jumped out at the viewing public was the Leonard, the breakthrough rookie from tiny South Carolina State who calls himself The Maniac. Look at these statistics: 18 tackles, 15 solo, a pass broken up, a sack, a forced fumble. What we're talking about is mayhem, as dominant an individual performance as we've seen from a Colt since the salad days of Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney. According to the team, that was the most tackles by an Indianapolis rookie since 1994, and the most by a Colts defender since Kavell Conner had 18 in 2011.

"Unbelievable,'' Reich said. "I remember (GM) Chris Ballard talking about him and having his eyes on him in the draft. Not just talking about this guy's playmaking ability, his athletic ability, but the kind of football character we want on this team. Man…what a day.''

On his right wrist, Leonard wears a Superman band, so, of course, I had to ask him about it.

"All the other super heroes have super powers but all Superman has is super strength,'' he said. "I like that.''

Asked about his favorite play of the day, he smiled. "The first play when I went one-on-one with Adrian Peterson. I watched him growing up and had his jersey. Making that tackle, that was fun.''

His teammates' reaction? They just shook their heads in amazement. Not because they didn't see this coming – they did, they really did – but to see him dominate like this in just his second NFL game was eye-opening.

"I first noticed when he made that interception (at training camp) over Erik Swoope, I believe,'' tight end Eric Ebron said. "He's been playing exceptionally well ever since. You've just got to admire dudes like that, rookies that come in and embrace the challenge. You never hear him complain, you never hear him saying anything, you just see him make plays and that's all you can ask of a young guy coming into this league.''

Yes, it's still early in Leonard's career, but I am hard-pressed to recall the last time a Colts' rookie defender made such an impact so early. And it hasn't just been these two regular-season games. From the very first day of camp, when he intercepted Luck, everybody noticed: This kid's got it. Speed, tenacity, smarts. In fact, Leonard was in charge of the Indy defense Sunday, wearing the helmet transmitter for the first time this season. More, there were times when the communication system failed to work (are we in Foxboro?) and Leonard handled it flawlessly, getting himself and his teammates lined up properly without fail.

Leonard grew up as a huge Clemson fan, spending his every free weekend at the school to hang out and enjoy the campus experience. He would have given an appendage to play for head coach Dabo Swinney, but he took too long to get serious about his academics and his final grades did not become available until after National Signing Day. The only school that didn't back off Leonard? South Carolina State, an FCS school.

But if you can make plays, the NFL people will find you, and credit to Ballard, he selected Leonard in the second round.

It can sometimes be tiresome, listening to players talk about having something to prove, playing with a chip on their shoulder, but it's the real thing with Leonard. The young man has a V-8 for a motor. He was overlooked in high school. He played largely in anonymity in college, except when his South Carolina State team played Clemson and Leonard went full-on maniac against the Tigers. Now, after two games, he not only looks like the real deal, he looks dominant, like a player who is going to be central to the eventual rebirth of this defense.

"I have a point to make,'' he said, referring to his emergence from a small high school and college to become, well, The Maniac.

In the end, there was the normally stoic Reich, dancing "The Shoot'' with his players in the post-game locker room – or so I'm told it's The Shoot by my younger and eminently hipper colleagues. Honestly, it looked like a man in the throes of a seizure, but give him a break: It was his first-ever NFL head-coaching victory. And if you had Leonard on your side, doing all manner of maniacal things on the field all of Sunday, wouldn't you dance, too?

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