“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
That Charles Dickens quote comes to mind when you think of Jim Leonhard as the Jets prepare for Sunday’s battle with the Steelers. The sixth-year safety is an integral part of the Green & White, but he broke his right tibia in practice on Dec. 3, was placed on injured reserve the next day and has been forced to watch this latest Jets’ playoff run.
“It definitely is bittersweet. We were 9-2 when I got hurt and I had a lot of contributions to this team, but to miss December, to miss January, to miss this playoff run — it really hurts. It definitely hurts,” he told me this week on “Four Quarters.” “It’s still hard to go to meetings and things like that, but you realize you did all you could before you got hurt. If we get that ring, I’m still going to get one. I’m excited and I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help the guys out.”
Leonhard has hardly been inactive, though, regularly making appearances for the club throughout the winter. Last Friday, he flipped a switch at the Empire State Building in a ceremony that led to the jewel in the Manhattan skyline being illuminated by green and white lights.
“To have the opportunity to light up the Empire State Building, that’s an opportunity that only comes around once in a lifetime,” said the Tony, Wis., native. “That was great, to represent the organization and to do that on behalf of the Jets. It was a lot of fun to see that fans’ reaction to that.”
When the victorious Jets flew home from New England on Sunday night, the pilot announced that they had been granted a special fly-by past the Manhattan landmark.
“I know they flew the plane back around the Empire State building to show the players after the game,” said Leonhard. “It means a lot to have the entire city of New York behind you. And Jersey and everything behind the Jets right now is a great feeling.”
Once reeling from the loss of Leonhard, the secondary has played splendidly in the postseason while containing Peyton Manning and then dominating Tom Brady.
“We’ve played a lot more zone coverage than we normally do the last two weeks and it really has confused teams. Then on top of that, when you play your man coverages or when you play your different zone coverages, it’s changed up,” said Leonhard. “There is a great mix and an offensive coordinator and a quarterback are really confused because they have to think every single play. I think that has been a huge key to our success against probably the two best quarterbacks in the NFL. Anytime you can get them confused, you’re doing some great things.”
Eric Smith has been doing great things in the postseason manning Leonhard’s position. He had seven tackles against the Patriots and recovered an onside kick to secure the victory after totaling eight solo tackles and two passes defended against the Colts.
“He’s been playing some great football. It’s been so fun to watch and to see him take that next step,” Leonhard said. “Somebody will make one or two guys miss and they get to Eric, it’s an unbelievable hit every time, and the guy’s down right there. That’s fun to watch. As a safety, he’s bringing that physical presence and he’s playing out of his mind right now. We need him to continue to play that way for us to have success.”
Instead of sulking about not playing in his third consecutive conference championship, Leonhard’s been a fixture at the facility: watching film, going to meetings and dropping bits of knowledge on his teammates. He is excited for Sunday’s matchup against a Ben Roethlisberger-led team that knocked him and the Ravens out of Super Bowl contention back in the 2008 AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field.
“He really doesn’t care if he does get hit,” Leonhard said of the Steelers’ QB. “A lot of times, you’ll get a free runner at him and with their blocking schemes it’s almost like they say, ‘Big Ben, you have to make somebody miss and then get the ball off.’ That’s what makes their offense unique and they get so many big plays off of him extending the play, shaking off a defender and then throwing the ball down the field.
“It definitely presents some challenges to a secondary, having a quarterback that can really extend that play two, three, four and five seconds. You really have to get those trackshoes on and get ready to run sometimes.”
The Steelers will field a better club than they did when the Jets visited on Dec. 19 as all-world S Troy Polamalu will be in the lineup. Leonhard believes the Steelers’ playmaker and his former Ravens teammate, Ed Reed, are the best two safeties in football. He has tremendous respect for Polamalu, a rangy player who plays with great aggression.
“You definitely can use it against him at times. He does get out of position because of a lot of the disguises and movement that he does. If you hit it at the right time, you can get some big plays out of it and a lot of times that’s where his big plays come from,” he said. “It looks like he’s badly beaten and he ends up making up ground, getting an interception or forcing a fumble. It’s the balancing act of attacking him and also staying away from him. That will be a great chessmatch between him and Mark all game long.”
The Jets’ charter this week will leave Newark, N.J., with Leonhard on board. Hopefully late Sunday night when that plane returns from Pittsburgh, he’ll see the Empire State Building still lit up in green and white after a most memorable victory.
“This will be the first game I’ve been at since I’ve been hurt, so I’m very excited to travel, be on the sidelines and hopefully stay out of the way and not get in trouble. I’m excited,” he said. “There’s no other place that I want to be than on that sideline after the game, celebrating with the guys and wearing that AFC Championship gear and getting ready for the Super Bowl.”
Tags: Ben Roethlisberger, Empire State Building, Jim Leonhard, Peyton Manning, PIttsburgh Steelers, Tom Brady
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