INDIANAPOLIS – As Darius Leonard prepared to leave the room after a Zoom call Thursday, he had one last request for local media.
“Make sure y’all let Bobby (Okereke) know he’s not the fastest linebacker,” Leonard said.
When Okereke was informed of Leonard’s comment moments later he broke into a wide smile and threw his head back while formulating a response.
“I mean, game speed, I think my numbers speak for themselves,” Okereke said. “I might be a little faster than D, but we’ll figure that out this season.”
There is no competition Leonard won’t engage and no bit of perceived negative information he won’t turn into motivation.
Even those created by science.
Okereke said the NFL’s Kinexon Perform technology tracked him at 21.3 mph during his 2-point conversion return last year against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Fellow linebacker Matthew Adams clocked in at 21.6 mph on the same play.
“So he’s probably the only linebacker I’ll say is maybe faster than me,” Okereke said.
That’s unlikely to deter Leonard, who has yet to reach 21 mph according to Okereke.
At any speed, the Indianapolis Colts linebackers will have a common goal this year – takeaways. The defense has made no secret of its desire to force at least 40 turnovers this season, increasing possessions for its own offense and demoralizing the opposition.
That’s easier said than done, but a fast and furious linebacker corps led by Leonard, Okereke and Anthony Walker Jr. feels it is up to the task.
Walker said the first thing defenders see on the whiteboard upon entering the meeting room every day is the word “ballhawk.” Takeaways are a constant point of emphasis for defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus and a key component of success in the Tampa 2-inspired scheme.
“If you’re gonna play in this defense,” Walker said, “that has to be your mindset.”
The Colts fell short of the mark in 2019. Indianapolis finished with 15 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries for a total of 23 takeaways – a figure they hope to nearly double this year.
The linebackers figure to play a big role. Leonard led the Colts with five interceptions last year, and he and Okereke were among four players with a team-high two forced fumbles.
Indianapolis thinks highly enough of the unit to keep seven players on the 53-man roster.
“From a three-starter standpoint, I’d match them up with anybody in the league,” general manager Chris Ballard said. “Then we’re fortunate because we have a good backup crew with Zaire Franklin, Matt Adams, E.J. Speed and (Jordan) Glasgow.
“They all play a certain role. But in terms of those top three, those are three really talented producers for our defense.”
Leonard said that’s no coincidence.
The linebackers compete fiercely with one another, and it’s helped them form an unbreakable bond. Leonard trusts Walker and Okereke to clean up his mistakes, and he has their back in return.
It allows the linebackers to play more aggressively as an interchangeable unit.
“We’re selfless,” Leonard said. “We’re definitely selfless. We learn from each other, and we spend so much time together outside of football. … We just know each other so well.”
SAVE IT FOR LATER
Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton has made no secret of his desire to finish his career with the Colts, despite the fact he’s entering the final year of his current contract.
There were talks early in the year about an extension, but nothing was finalized before the start of practice for the regular season.
Hilton said Thursday he considers the conversation over for now.
“That’s dead,” he said. “I’m ready to go. Whenever that happens, it happens. But, right now, that’s dead, and I’m ready to rock and roll.”
All-pro left guard Quenton Nelson made a sudden appearance on Thursday’s practice report. He was the lone player not to participate and was listed with a back injury.
That means 60% of Indianapolis’ starting offensive line is on the report for Week 1. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo (oblique) and center Ryan Kelly (knee) were limited for the second straight practice.
Defensive end Justin Houston (calf) also was added as a limited participant. Adams (ankle) and safety Julian Blackmon (knee) were limited for a second consecutive day.
Rookie wide receiver Dezmon Patmon (knee) returned to full participation.