Could Shaq Leonard have more big plays this season if Colts played him on third down?

Shaquille Leonard hasn’t forced a turnover this season. Could it have anything to do with the fact that the Indianapolis Colts aren’t playing him or third down?
New England Patriots v Indianapolis Colts
New England Patriots v Indianapolis Colts / Andy Lyons/GettyImages

Shaquille Leonard’s return season hasn’t been going the way everyone hoped it would. After having a Defensive Player of the year type season in 2021, Leonard was limited to just 74 snaps over three games in 2022 because of two back surgeries. However, he entered the current 2023 season healthy and everyone expected him to get back to his dominant ways. Unfortunately, that hasn’t quite been the case.

Leonard has played in all but one game this season and he’s currently fourth on the team in tackles, two tackles away from being second. On the year, Shaq Leonard has 65 tackles with two for a loss. However, he doesn’t have any interceptions or forced fumbles— two things that have become a trademark of his game.

The lack of game-changing takeaways has been a point of contention for Leonard and the Colts staff. Indianapolis has been limiting Leonard’s snaps and routinely taking him off the field for third downs. While the team argues that Leonard isn’t all the way back yet, and use his lack of splash plays as evidence, Leonard has consistently told the media that he’s ready to play without restrictions and points to his lack of snaps and role in the scheme for the abscence of splash plays.

While Leonard has had some ups and downs on the field this season, it’s fair to ask if his lack of third-down snaps is contributing to his lack of splash plays like takeaways. Everyone knows that third downs are money downs; that’s when big plays are made. Could that be why Leonard’s big plays are missing this season? Let’s take a look at some of his past big plays.

Should Colts play Shaquille Leonard on third down?

Let’s look back at Leonard’s dominant 2021 season; a year when Leonard had four interceptions, three fumble recoveries, and a league-high eight forced fumbles. Leonard had been good at taking the ball away since he entered the NFL, but it was in 2021 when he established himself as the league’s Turnover King. The question is: how many of those turnovers came on third down?

Looking just at Shaq Leonard’s four interceptions and eight forced fumbles from 2021, four of the 12 plays were made on a third down. Leonard recorded an interception on a 3rd-and-7 against the Tennessee Titans, another interception on a 3rd-and-3 against the New England Patriots, a forced fumble on a 3rd-and-13 against the San Francisco 49ers, and another forced fumble on a 3rd-and-10 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Of the eight other plays, two happened on first down and six came on second down.

So, Leonard has definitely been a factor on third down; half of his interceptions that season came on third down. However, the other numbers show that Leonard took the ball away on the first two downs as well, especially on second. That means Leonard’s lack of big plays can’t solely be blamed on not playing third downs, though, being on the field during those plays would certainly give him more chances to make something happen.

The most likely factors for Leonard not forcing a turnover yet are his overall decrease in snaps, not just on third down, and his role in Gus Bradley’s defense. In 2021, Leonard played 98% of defensive snaps; this season he’s playing just 70%. As far as his role goes, Leonard is being used a bit differently under Gus Bradley than he was under Matt Eberflus in 2021. Regardless, all eyes will be on Leonard in the second half of the season to see if he can get back to form.