INDIANAPOLIS – No one should question whether the fire still burns white hot within Shaquille Leonard.
“I’m a competitor. I want to play,’’ he said Thursday. “I’ve put my body through so much. I’ve worked extremely hard to get to this point and it is frustrating when you’re standing on the sideline knowing that you’re capable of going out there and competing at a high level.’’
That hasn’t been the case through the first nine games of the season and might not change Sunday when the Indianapolis Colts face the New England Patriots in Frankfurt, Germany.
As Leonard has worked his way back from back surgery in November – his second surgery to address back/disk/nerve issues in a five-month span – he’s seen his role change from every-down playmaker to complementary linebacker in Gus Bradley’s defense.
“It sucks,’’ he said.
Then for emphasis.
“It sucks,’’ he quickly added.
Perhaps more concerning for a player whose resume features three first-team All-Pro selections and one second-team All-Pro nod: there’s every likelihood nothing changes over the final two months.
That sobering message seems to have been delivered to Leonard during his many conversations with Bradley and position coach Richard Smith.
“In my mind, I feel this is how it’s going to be. That’s just me personally,’’ he said. “It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be frustrating.
“But it is what it is.’’
Leonard seldom came off the field during his first four seasons. He handled at least 90% of the snaps in 48 of his 58 starts, including 100% 40 times.
This season, he’s topped 80% in just three of eight games. In last Sunday’s 27-13 win at Carolina and with Zaire Franklin out with a knee injury, backup Segun Olubi slid into Franklin’s Mike spot and was on the field for all 71 defensive snaps. He had taken a total of nine in his eight prior games.
Leonard thought he might get Franklin’s reps. Wrong.
Bradley stayed in his nickel package the entire game – two linebackers, an extra defensive back – which resulted in Leonard (55%) and E.J. Speed (45%) divvying up reps. The game plan involved a rotation of two series for Leonard, then one for Speed.
“I knew he was going to have a good game,’’ Leonard said of Olubi. “I told him that before the game.’’
His position coach informed Leonard of the game plan for the Panthers on Wednesday when Franklin’s status was in serious doubt. Franklin didn’t practice all week.
“Segu went to Mike and I asked Smith what was the game plan,’’ Leonard said. “He told me, ‘You’re going to split reps on first and second and you’re not going to play on third.’ That’s when I kinda knew.
“It sucks hearing that. You’re already not playing on third and you’re taking (away) reps on first and second down, too. It’s very heartbreaking to get that.’’
It’s clear the Colts are intent on giving Speed as many reps as possible. The 2019 fifth-round pick has generated 12 splash plays – 1 sack, one quarterback hit, six tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two passes defended – despite playing roughly 45% of the defensive snaps.
Leonard ranks fourth on the team with 56 tackles, but has only two tackles for loss.
However, an argument can be made it’s difficult for Leonard to make game-changing plays when he’s not on the field on third down, which is a fertile time for takeaways.
“You’re not getting the same amount of opportunities,’’ Leonard said. “On third down, sometimes the ball will get forced, or sometimes things will get drawn up for you to be the free guy.
“It’s not an excuse for me to not make splash plays because I know the type of player I am.’’
That’s why Leonard has approached Bradley regarding his usage. Leonard was a catalyst in former coordinator Matt Eberflus’ scheme and routinely piled up splash plays. That’s not the case to this point with Bradley.
Leonard has been direct in his conversations with Bradley.
“Just, ‘What can I do? What am I doing wrong? Do you not believe in me? Am I not making plays? Am I bad in the run game, bad in the pass game? Just tell me something (to) help me sleep better at night,’’’ he said. “I feel like I give everything I got on the field and practice and I give everything I got whenever I’m playing on Sundays, whether it’s one play for 70 plays.
“It just sucks. Honestly, it really sucks. Everybody says they want you to keep that fighting edge until you step on toes. We have conversations.’’
The early conversations involved the team and Leonard agreeing to be patient with his rehab until November.
“And now it’s November,’’ Leonard said. “It’s just tough, man.
“I’ve gotta control what I can control and that is play well on the snaps that I play. I sit on the bench and be frustrated, but when I get back out there you go back and do what you do.’’
Bradley understands Leonard’s frustration.
“Shaq is frustrated with wanting to be on the field more. I get it,’’ he said.
That competitive drive is welcomed by Bradley.
“I do,’’ he said. “I told Shaq ‘Don’t bend on wanting to be on the field every play. That’s what you need to do and it’s not going to be easy on us as a coaching staff. But that’s OK.’
“That’s what we’re paid to do, to handle and facilitate what we think is best for the team and best for both of them.’’
Rookie cornerback JuJu Brents (quad) and tight end Drew Ogletree (foot) did not make the trip to Frankfurt, Germany with the team because of their injuries.
Rookie wideout Josh Downs (knee) did not practice Thursday prior to the team’s flight while Franklin (knee) and wideout Alec Pierce (ankle) were limited.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.