Jim Leonhard Wall Street Journal Sports Section

When Picking Safeties, the Jets Prefer Brains to Brawn
May 21, 2010

If anyone ever wonders why undersized, 5-foot-8 Jim Leonhard, who at first glance does not appear to belong in an NFL uniform, is a key to the Jets' defense, it's because playing safety for the Jets now demands as much intellectually as physically.

During a 2008 tryout for the Ravens, where Jets coach Rex Ryan was the defensive coordinator. Mr. Leonhard impressed the team with his football smarts, making the correct calls despite getting the playbook just an hour before his first practice.

"In a lot of defenses you get the call, it's simple, you know where everyone is, you just look straight to the offense," Mr. Leonhard said.

"In this defense, I'm trying to talk to two cornerbacks, two linebackers and whoever else before I can look at the offense."

Safety is a leadership position on the Jets, who surrendered the fewest passing yards in the NFL last season, giving up 153.7 per game.

The prominence of the safety position came with Ryan from Baltimore, where Will Demps played the "command" role that Mr. Leonhard now occupies and Pro Bowl selection Ed Reed the "playmaker' role that the Jets want free-agent signee Brodney Pool to fill.

That Mr. Leonhard, a walk-on at Wisconsin, is the unquestioned leader of the safeties was confirmed last season, when star safety Kerry Rhodes was jettisoned, in part because he wanted the leadership role that was given to Mr. Leonhard.

"Realistically, the design didn't materialize last year because [Mr. Rhodes] didn't learn the defense the way he should have," said Dennis Thurman, the Jets' defensive backs coach.

"He wanted to be the guy who wanted to make the changes, make the checks and he didn't know the defense.''

Mr. Thurman said he tried and failed to get Mr. Rhodes to understand that because Mr. Leonhard knew the defense that would free him to become the playmaker.

"You should just put yourself in a position to make plays like Ed Reed does," Mr. Thurman said he told Mr. Rhodes, who did not return phone calls for comment.

Mr. Thurman, who was with Mr. Ryan in Baltimore, said that the Ravens wanted to draft Mr. Pool out of Oklahoma, but that they had Mr. Reed and didn't need a safety until their move to New York.

Last season Mr. Pool played for Mr. Ryan's brother, Rob, the Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator. He played five seasons for the Browns, starting at least eight games for the last four of those seasons.

"There's a lot of pressure on our safeties," Mr. Thurman said. "There's so much mentally that they have to process in a 30-second period of time."

The role Mr. Pool plays will be less demanding mentally than Mr. Leonhard's.

The Jets want him to rely on his athleticism to make plays, telling Mr. Pool, "If you are thinking, you are hurting the team."

One problem for Mr. Pool is his concussion history. He's been diagnosed with at least two, but said that reports of more are false and that most of his reported concussions were later diagnosed as migraines, which run in his family.

Mr. Thurman coached another safety with a concussion history at Southern California when Troy Polamalu considered quitting football because of a series of concussions.

But Mr. Thurman put him in touch with Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott, who also suffered from concussions in his career. Mr. Lott taught Mr. Polamalu how to tackle without getting a concussion, and Mr. Thurman said Mr. Lott will be doing the same for Mr. Pool later in the year.

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