Once again, Indianapolis Colts' star linebacker Darius Leonard was one of the best in the business defensively.
Aside from his incredible turnover production in defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus's scheme that led to his third first team All-Pro honor, Leonard also earned a top-flight distinction from Pro Football Focus after a dominant 2021 season: the league's best run defender.
Leonard, who finished with a 90.0 run defense grade from PFF in a year in which he finished with 122 tackles (37 run stops, per PFF), easily outpaced the rest of the league in PFF's metrics to earn the top honor in PFF's 2021 season awards article.
Darius Leonard was a turnover machine this season. He has perfected the art of the “Peanut Punch” tackle, forcing fumbles without risking the play if his attempt to jar the ball loose isn’t successful. Leonard had four forced fumbles in the run game, twice as many as any other linebacker, and his average depth of tackle was just 2.87 yards down field.
Run defense goes beyond just those statistical plays, however, and is about how you deal with blocks and whether you can negatively impact the blocking scheme or the path of the running back, spilling him toward other defenders who can make the play even if you can’t. Leonard understands offensive tendencies and keys as well as any defender — he was consistently pointing out plays and reading things before they happened, alerting teammates to what was coming and blowing up the play to let them clean up behind him. He was the best run defender in football in 2021.
Since entering the league in 2018, Leonard has been the elite of the elite against the run, reading his keys quickly and being able to fire downhill, avoid blocks and make plays all over the field sideline to sideline.
Though he's been one of the top run defenders in the league throughout his career, this is the first time Leonard has graded above a 79.0 against the run in PFF's metrics. Ironically, his rookie season he stat at a 75.4 grade, then improved to 78.8 in 2019, but dropped to a 68.8 this season before climbing all the way up to his sparkling 90.0 overall grade against the run.
Without Leonard, who knows where the Colts' defense would be, especially against the run. A turnover machine and the emotional leader of the defense, Leonard is more than deserving of the award bestowed on him by PFF after a monster fourth season in the NFL.
Have thoughts on Darius Leonard being named the league's best run defender by Pro Football Focus? Drop a line in the comments section below letting us know how you feel!