Leonhard proving to be Raven's safety net

By Dave Carey
Examiner Staff Writer 1/16/09

An exhausted Trevor Pryce stood by his locker following a grueling win over Tennessee that advanced the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game.

The first thought to come to the defensive lineman's mind?

"Thank God for little Jimmy Leonhard," he said of the safety who forced a fumble that was recovered on the team's 1-yard line in the fourth quarter after recovering an earlier fumble inside the team's 20-yard line.

But players and coaches have echoed Pryce's words throughout the season, as the 5-foot-8, 186-pounder has emerged as a fantastic backup after Dawan Landry suffered a season-ending spinal concussion on Sept. 21.

"Whatever it takes to do to win is what I want to do," Leonhard said. "I was fortunate enough to be placed in positions to make plays, and the fumble bounces right to me and things like that. Like I said, it's all about winning on this team. Luckily, I was the guy to be in that position last week. You never know who it'll be this week."

He finished the regular season with 69 tackles, a sack and an interception returned for a touchdown. In two playoff games, he has been even better, with 12 tackles, a 1/2 sack, an interception a forced fumble and a recovery --not bad for someone very few expected to even make the team.

Leonhard, who spent the previous three seasons with the Buffalo Bills before being released, was given a tryout by the Ravens. He was impressive --at least impressive enough to be invited to training camp, where he showed he could improve a secondary that yielded 222.3 passing yards and 27 touchdowns last season.

Initially, Rex Ryan, the defensive coordinator, was unsure if Leonhard would be a good fit, but Leonhard has gotten used to being doubted. At the University of Wisconsin, he was a walk-on before he earned a full scholarship en route to tying a school record with 21 interceptions and finishing as the Big Ten's career leader with 1,347 punt return yards.

But his production and athleticism weren't enough to get him drafted, as he had to make the Buffalo Bills as a free agent in 2005. Three years later, he had to prove himself in Baltimore.

"He actually came here on a tryout basis, one of those weekend deals," Ryan said. "[We were] like, 'You know what? This guy is pretty good. He's smart. What do you mean he's smart? Well, he's running with the starters, if that means anything."

Leonard, nicknamed "White Lightning" by cornerback Frank Walker, has helped the team's pass defense become one of the league's best, as it's second in the league in passing yards (179.7) and allowed 10 fewer touchdowns than last season.

He also has contributed to the return game. After an injury to Yamon Figurs, he took over the punt return duties, averaging 11.6 yards on 20 attempts.

"Throw away the 40 [-yard dash] times, throw away how big you are, how fast you are, throw away all that crap," receiver Derrick Mason said. "I just want a football player. You give me a football player and I can win you a championship. Jimmy, he's a football player. We've got a bunch of football players on this team. Some guys might not be the ideal size, some guys might not be the ideal speed. But you know what? They're going to play football, and that's all I care about. Give me a football player and I can get a championship."

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