Leonhard yielding big returns

Signed in offseason, he leads Ravens in bringing back punts

December 27, 2008|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,edward.lee@baltsun.com

Punt returns are marked by chaos and random patterns, daring teams to sift through the unpredictability to - depending on your viewpoint - either find the returner or the end zone.

And Jim Leonhard loves it.

"I think vision comes into play a lot more on punt returns because you don't know what's going to happen until you get the ball in your hands, whereas with kickoffs, it's kind of structured a little bit more," he said. "I've always done punt returns. I haven't returned kickoffs since, really, high school. But I've done a lot of punt returns. I really enjoy that."

Leonhard's delight shows in his play, which has appeared to help him leapfrog Yamon Figurs as the Ravens' primary punt returner.

Although special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg has taken great pains to avoid making such an announcement, Leonhard is averaging 12.2 yards on 19 punt returns and has fielded every punt in the past two games. Leonhard's average - which ranks sixth in the NFL - more than doubles Figurs' 6.0-yard average this season.

Leonhard, who is also the starting strong safety, said he wouldn't mind being the team's full-time punt returner.

"That's what I'm trying to do," he said. "I'm just trying to go out there and make as many plays as I can and set up our offense as good as I can. It's been going really well, and like I said, we're hitting our stride. We've just got to continue to keep moving forward."

Leonhard seems to contradict the image of many NFL players. At 5 feet 8 and 186 pounds, he isn't terribly big. His speed - though better than average - doesn't evoke oohs and aahs. And he doesn't celebrate after each successful return.

Rosburg said Leonhard is often underestimated by those who don't know him.

"The thing that people are perhaps a little bit mistaken of is they look at Jim and they think he's an overachiever. That guy's a good athlete," Rosburg said. "You don't make plays as a punt returner at this level without having athletic ability. He's got the ability to put his foot in the ground and cut off people, and he reads blocks very well. He's been a real positive force for us."

It's unclear whether Leonhard can continue being a force for the Ravens, who signed him to a one-year, $520,000 deal after his contract with the Buffalo Bills expired this past offseason.

Leonhard, who ranks fifth on defense with 79 tackles in 12 starts and has collected a sack and an interception as a replacement for the injured Dawan Landry, said he would like to stay with the Ravens.

"You think about it a little bit, but it's out of my hands right now," he said. "All I can do is play and try to get us where we want to be. You just try to go about your business and prepare and enjoy. This is the most I've enjoyed a season in a while. I'm just having fun doing that and not worried about anything in the future yet."

Leonhard's contributions have not gone unnoticed by his teammates. Brendon Ayanbadejo, who is going to the Pro Bowl as a special teams player, took note of Leonhard's versatility in training camp and the regular season.

"He played a lot. He had interceptions, punt returns, he did everything and then some, and that's how he made this team," Ayanbadejo said. "I don't ever count Jimmy Leonhard out."

Notes: : Coach John Harbaugh said offensive tackle Willie Anderson (sprained left ankle) and rookie running back Ray Rice (left shin bruise) would be game-time decisions for tomorrow's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. "They're both pushing to get ready," Harbaugh said of the pair, questionable after participating in yesterday's practice on a limited basis. "Can't really predict it right now. We're hopeful." ... Despite not practicing all week, wide receiver Derrick Mason (trapezius muscle) and cornerback Fabian Washington (toe) are listed as questionable. Free safety Ed Reed (hamstring), cornerback Samari Rolle (sprained foot), linebacker Jarret Johnson (left calf) and offensive tackle Adam Terry (knee) are also questionable after being limited in practice yesterday. Defensive end Trevor Pryce (illness) and wide receiver Yamon Figurs (head) are probable.

Amid speculation that linebacker Antwan Barnes might miss tomorrow's game and the playoffs because of a pectoral muscle injury, Harbaugh said he wasn't prepared to make such an announcement. "There's a couple-week issue right in there," Harbaugh said. "We'll have to make a decision about whether we'll have an opportunity to bring him back, whether it's worth trying to wait and taking the risk that he wouldn't be back. We should know more about that on Monday."

Edgar Jones is making the switch to linebacker from tight end again, and he will back up outside linebacker Terrell Suggs tomorrow. "During the season when I was at tight end, [the coaches] would give me a defensive handout at the beginning of the week," said Jones, who split a sack of the Houston Texans' Sage Rosenfels with rookie linebacker Jameel McClain on Nov. 9. "I would kind of go through it a little bit just to keep up with it."

2009 schedule

The Ravens' opponents for next season:

Home Away

Bears AFC East*

Bengals Bengals

Broncos Browns

Browns Chargers

Chiefs Packers

Colts Raiders

Lions Steelers

Steelers Vikings

*-second-place team

JAGUARS (5-10) @RAVENS (10-5)

Tomorrow, 4:15 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM

Line: Ravens

by 12 1/2

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