INDIANAPOLIS — Darius Leonard was nodding furiously even before the question was finished.
Just as though he was diagnosing a play by watching the movement of the offensive line, the two-time all-pro linebacker knew exactly what was coming next.
Yes, he heard Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ comment to San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner on Nov. 5. And of course the man who seeks out every perceived slight and disrespect is using it as motivation.
After the Packers’ 34-17 victory against San Francisco on Thursday Night Football, Rodgers’ conversation was caught on a mic worn by Warner.
“Ain’t nobody better,” the quarterback said. “There really isn’t. You’re the best. No doubt. And everybody knows it. The field don’t lie. You should be an all-pro.”
To be fair, Warner has 321 career tackles with three interceptions, three sacks, four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in 42 games.
Leonard has 344 career tackles, seven interceptions, 13 sacks, seven forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries in 35 games.
But this is not about numbers or even any kind of genuine grudge.
Rodgers has faced Warner three times, and this will be his first game against Leonard — a factor the Colts’ superstar noted.
The future Hall of Famer simply represents another audience Leonard believes he must persuade.
“I’ve been looking forward to this game ever since he said it,” Leonard said. “He’s been in the league for a long time, and for him to say that about Fred Warner … (it’s) my first time. I want to leave a mark and hopefully change his mind of what he said about that.”
Rodgers clearly meant no disrespect to any other linebacker with his praise of Warner.
In fact, he had plenty of good things to say about Leonard to the Green Bay media contingent this week.
“He does it all,” Rodgers said. “He’s a really heady player. He’s super athletic sideline to sideline. He’s also a willing and very good tackler. He’s one of those guys that makes them go. It’ll be a fun challenge for us. I have a ton of respect for him as a player.”
The feeling is mutual, even if Leonard couldn’t resist a targeted dig of his own.
Asked if Rodgers represents the greatest challenge Indianapolis (6-3) has faced this season, the linebacker pointed to Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson’s unparalleled running ability as the biggest threat.
Jackson was held to 58 yards and one touchdown on 13 carries when the Ravens visited Lucas Oil Stadium on Nov. 8. But he also finished 19-of-23 for 170 yards passing and helped Baltimore win time of possession by nearly eight minutes en route to a 24-10 victory.
Rodgers remains one of the NFL’s most prolific passers with 2,578 yards and 26 touchdowns against just three interceptions this season. He’s averaged 239 yards and two touchdowns in three previous meetings with Indianapolis.
“You respect guys like that,” Leonard said. “He’s been in this thing for a long time. He’s definitely a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Yes, you know that, but we’ve still gotta be us. (I’ll) give you every honest answer that I can possibly give. Like (defensive end Justin) Houston said a couple weeks back, you respect them but don’t fear them. You gotta let them know that it’s 11 guys (on defense), you only got one football.”
Leonard’s been on a hot streak of his own.
In three games since returning from a groin injury, he’s recorded 33 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
He said game-changing plays – turnovers, sacks and tackles for loss – are what separate him from the pack at his position, and the numbers back him up. But he also harbors an unadulterated love for his job.
As the Colts started practice Thursday, Leonard danced to the music blaring through the indoor facility and loudly shouted encouragement to his teammates.
He’ll use Rodgers’ perceived slight for motivation Sunday, but Leonard never lacks juice.
“Life is gonna hit you in so many different directions, and you’ve gotta be thankful for absolutely everything that you have in life,” Leonard said. “For me, football is the one place that I can go and the world stops. The outside world stops. I don’t know anything that’s going on on the outside.
“… I don’t take anything for granted. I’m gonna go out and have fun no matter what. Once I ever stop having fun with it, that’s when I’ll put them cleats up and try a new direction.”
The situation improved for Indianapolis in the defensive backfield, but new concerns rose along the defensive line.
Defensive end Denico Autry did not practice with an undisclosed illness, and three other defensive linemen – Grover Stewart, Al Quadin-Muhammad and Tyquan Lewis – had their absences tagged only as “not injury related.” There were no immediate reports of positive coronavirus tests, and no players were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Thursday.
Tight end Noah Togiai (knee) also did not participate.
Safeties Khari Willis (ribs) and Julian Blackmon (pelvis/knee) and tight end Jack Doyle (concussion) returned to full practice. Tight end Mo Alie-Cox (knee), cornerback Kenny Moore II (ribs), right tackle Braden Smith (thumb) and defensive end Kemoko Turay (ankle) were limited participants.