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Biggest Tackle in the League


Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan is known for employing some interesting defensive schemes, but he may have outdone himself in Thursday's preseason opener against the New England Patriots.

When Ryan ran out of defensive linemen at one point during the Ravens' 16-15 victory, he turned to safety Jim Leonhard to fill the gap for a play.

At 5-foot-8, 186 pounds, Leonhard didn't necessarily measure up favorably to the hulking New England offensive linemen, but he was eager to answer the call.

"That was fun," said Leonhard. "I just had to put my trust in Rex that it was a good idea. I had to get back in pass coverage, so it wasn't anything too different."

Of course, Leonhard thinks that now. When he actually did line up in the trenches, the safety recalled his eyes getting much bigger when a Patriots guard followed him upfield.

"He was kind of concerned because he lined up and he dropped, and even though it was a drop-back pass, the guard chased him down the field," laughed head coach John Harbaugh after Saturday's morning practice. "He didn't understand quite why."

Chalk it up to another experience for the four-year veteran. Leonhard joined the Ravens this offseason after he was released by the Buffalo Bills in 2007.

Oddly enough, that was also Leonhard's most-productive campaign, even though a calf injury kept him out of Weeks 5-7 and limited him for the rest of the season. He played in 13 games and started six, posting 51 tackles and two interceptions. Leonhard also has 18 special teams stops and 11 punt returns for 94 yards throughout his career.

While the former undrafted free agent said his departure from the Bills was bittersweet, the chance to play in Baltimore was something he couldn't pass up.

"It was disappointing," he explained. "I felt last year I started out the season really well and then got injured. You kind of get forgotten when you get injured.

"It's just a great opportunity here. I miss a lot of the guys there, some great guys, but it's the same thing here. Like I said, there's no better defense to play in than this. It's a lot of fun."

With a tireless work ethic, toughness and high intelligence, Leonhard fits Harbaugh's vision of what his team should be.

All of Leonhard's characteristics have shown up in Baltimore's secondary, special teams and briefly on the defensive line during training camp, where he's seen some time with the first-string in Ed Reed's absence (shoulder).

"Jim's a veteran player," Harbaugh noted. "He's a good blitzer, he's good in coverage deep, he's good in man coverage, he returns punts and he does a lot of things that help a football team."

Because Reed recently came off the injured list, Leonhard will continue to battle heralded draft picks Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura, each of whom has been impressive.

"I got my opportunity, and you know you're going to get your chance in training camp," Leonhard said. "You've just got to make the most of it. The two drafted guys are going to get their looks, which is totally understandable."

But Leonhard just may have some more tricks up his sleeve. He's been known to surprise people, as evidenced by the slam dunk contests he won his sophomore and junior years at Wisconsin.

"It was offseason conditioning stuff, and the coaches had a little fun with it," Leonhard admitted.

"I'd just dunk it as hard as I could because nobody expected me to be able to do it. It's a little shocking when you get a 5-8 guy up there dunking pretty hard."

Despite his diminutive size, Leonhard is decidedly motivated to prove any and all critics wrong.

"I think everyone has to have that chip on their shoulder, no matter what it is," he said. "I just go out there and try to make plays."

For Leonhard, that apparently applies to multiple positions.

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