Leonhard Playing Big for Ravens

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Safety Jim Leonhard may only stand a diminutive 5-foot-8 and weigh a light 186 pounds, but he played like a giant on Saturday, helping the Ravens advance to an AFC Championship matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers next weekend.

In a gutsy 13-10 win over the Tennessee Titans, Leonhard was all over the field, posting five tackles, recovering one fumble and forcing another.

For a player signed off the street last offseason when he was cast away by the Buffalo Bills, Leonhard has been critical for the Ravens all year.

Leonhard's multi-dimensional talents bolstered the Ravens' back end, a unit that was in question earlier this season. When regular starter Dawan Landry's spinal cord concussion landed him Injured Reserve in Week 2, Leonhard got the promotion and quickly went from little-known free agent to key contributor.

His production even prompted veteran defensive tackle Trevor Pryce to exclaim, "Thank God for little Jimmy Leonhard," after the Titans game.

The humble Leonhard takes such praise and simply laughs it off, redirecting most of it to his teammates.

"I'm a competitor and like to go out there and win," Leonhard said Monday. "Whatever it takes on this team to win is what I want to do. I was fortunate enough to be placed in positions to make plays, and the fumble bounces right to me and things like that.

"It's all about winning on this team. Luckily, I was the guy to be in that position last week. You never know who it'll be this week."

It just seems that Leonhard, nicknamed "White Lightning" by cornerback Frank Walker, is in the right position more often than not.

The interception he recovered? That came when he was running up to hit husky running back LenDale White, but linebacker Jarret Johnson got there first. When Johnson punched the football out from behind, it flew straight into Leonhard's hands.

The fumble he forced? Leonhard teamed with linebacker Bart Scott to take down 262-pound tight end Alge Crumpler. Scott went low, and Leonhard flew in high to dislodge the ball with his shoulder.

And one of his five stops was for a 5-yard loss, when he made a prescient play to corral tight end Bo Scaife on third-and-3 pass in the second quarter.

While Leonhard's duties - which recently includes returning punts - have only recently received national attention, they are certainly appreciated in Baltimore. When the Ravens first saw him during a spring workout, general manager Ozzie Newsome wouldn't let him leave the city.

"He actually came here on a try-out basis, one of those weekend deals," said assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. "[We were] like, 'You know what? This guy is pretty good. He's smart.' 'What do you mean he's smart?' 'Well, he's running with the first team, if that means anything.' So I guess Ozzie decided to keep him then."

Leonhard faced a long road to becoming a first-teamer on the NFL's second-ranked defense.

He walked on to the University of Wisconsin's squad and didn't even get a scholarship until his senior year. But Leonhard played in every game, starting 39 of them, and finished tied for the school record with 21 interceptions.

A talented returner, he ended his Badgers career as the Big Ten's all-time leader in punt return yardage with 1,347 yards, adding three touchdowns. Leonhard even made a name for himself on the basketball court, winning a few dunk contests in spite of his height.

Still, all 32 teams passed on him during the 2005 draft. Leonhard joined the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent and mainly played special teams before starting six games in 2007. His 51 tackles and two interceptions last season were not enough for the Bills to retain the safety.

Both Leonhard and the Ravens offer their gratitude.

"My journey this year has been great," Leonhard said. "Just to meet these people in this locker room and this organization and to be able to help out and play well, it's been so much fun. I tell all the reporters around here this is the most fun.

"There are just so many tremendous people in this organization that it's hard not to go out and have fun every day playing this game."

Leonhard - who finished the regular season fourth on the team with 85 tackles to go along with a sack, interception and six passes defended - has been on a tear in the playoffs.

In Baltimore's Wild Card contest with the Miami Dolphins, Leonhard second-quarter interception was the first of five forced turnovers.

"Our front seven has done a great job the last two weeks in creating pressure and making it easy for this back end, and we've been very opportunistic," said Leonhard. "We've caught the balls when they were there and created turnovers, fumbles, things like that.

"We just have continue to do what we've been doing all year and hopefully catch some breaks, as well. Hopefully, the same things will happen this week, and we'll get to the Super Bowl."

That road goes through Pittsburgh, where the Ravens will head to face the AFC North champions in the third meeting between these two bitter rivals this year.

From afar, Leonhard could always tell there was something special about a Ravens/Steelers showdown.

Now, Leonhard is eager to be a part of the battle.

"As an outsider, you look in, and you just know it's a very physical rivalry," Leonhard explained. "It's obvious that the teams don't like each other. Being here, it's the same thing. You just know the people a little more and the history behind it. These games are what they're expected to be."

The Ravens have come to expect Leonhard to throw his weight around with the best of them. Considering his size, Leonhard's No. 36 jersey might be easily lost amongst larger defenders, but the plays he's made for the purple and black definitely demand attention.

"He's a big-time athlete, but not the biggest," Ryan said. "He plays like a Raven. He's smart, passionate and physical; our kind of guy."

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