Reserve safety comes up big

The Baltimore Sun

As offseason transactions go, the Ravens' signing of Jim Leonhard didn't exactly create a buzz. But two games into the season, the acquisition of the reserve safety looks like one of the team's best offseason moves.

Filling in first for injured kick returner Yamon Figurs and later for strong safety Dawan Landry, Leonhard made subtle but significant contributions in a 28-10 defeat of the Cleveland Browns yesterday.

He delivered a pair of 30-yard kickoff returns and a 22-yard punt return on special teams. On defense, he had a sack and a quarterback hurry and broke up one pass.

Not bad for a guy who defensive coordinator Rex Ryan says looks like the kid next door, a player who went undrafted out of Wisconsin in 2005.

"Everybody jokes about that," Leonhard, 25, said of his appearance. "It's not a secret. I look real young, I'm not real imposing - like Lorenzo Neal walking around here that you can tell he's a great football player.

"[But] I'm a competitor, and I like to go out there and have fun."

The 5-foot-8, 186-pound safety signed with the Ravens in late April after spending three years with the Buffalo Bills. He accepted the Ravens' offer over a similar one from the Atlanta Falcons because he liked Ryan's defense and he could tell this was a special group of players.

"It's fun playing this defense," Leonhard said. "These guys really love to play and get after people. Anytime you've got the talented guys we have with that work ethic and the passion to play, it's a scary thing."

After an 18-yard kickoff return from 4 yards deep in the end zone to start the game, he made his presence felt in increasingly bigger ways.

"I kind of made a bad decision on the first one to bring it out," he said. "I got a little excited back there."

In the second quarter, he had a pair of 30-yard kickoff returns and broke up a pass intended for tight end Kellen Winslow that could have been a big play for the Browns.

In the third quarter, he got free on a double safety blitz to drop quarterback Derek Anderson for a 7-yard loss. On the next play, he returned a punt 22 yards to set up the Ravens' third touchdown of the period. That is more than 100 yards of real estate Leonhard accounted for himself.

"When we first got him, we knew he was a good football player," Ryan said. "I remember the kid when he was at Wisconsin. He did these exact things. It doesn't matter what he looks like. ... He can jump over your head. He's got phenomenal athletic abilities."

Losing Landry at the end of the first half to a frightening spinal cord concussion was a critical point for the Ravens. But there was no drop-off when Leonhard came in.

"My thoughts and prayers are with Dawan," Leonhard said. "He's a tremendous guy. When that happens, you have to be ready. Last year in Buffalo, I was in the same situation, where a starter went down and I had to step up.

"In this business, at this level, you can't let it drop off. You have to try to keep it at the same level, and especially on this defense."

Leonhard made six of his seven career starts in Buffalo after safety Ko Simpson broke his leg in last year's opener. In 13 games overall, he had two interceptions and 51 tackles.

"Landry to me is one of the best safeties in the league," Ryan said. "Jim Leonhard is a great player in his own right, a great complement. He's smart, and you can put him anywhere. He's an emergency nickel, an emergency corner. We played him at nose guard in the preseason. Really, he's just a football player, and he knows the game."

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