I think saying the Jets' defense played so poorly last night because of Jim Leonhard is an overstatement. Eric Smith was not very good in coverage in Jim's place, but that is not Leonhard's strong point. There's a lot to love about Jim. How can you not admire a small undrafted guy without any striking attributes like speed or athleticism who makes himself into a player? He is good against the run. He is good a blitzer. For a small guy, he is a good tackler. I have a tough time imagining him holding up well against New England's athletic tight ends, though.
I also think the whole "quarterback of the defense" thing is a bit overblown. I agree that making the calls is important in some instances. One of the great untold parts of last year's Super Bowl was the way Jonathan Vilma countered Peyton Manning's audibles with defensive audibles. Leonhard does know the defense and corrected guys who were not lined up in the right spots. Let's not make more of this than it really is, though. To hear certain television announcers, one would think Leonhard was drawing up the plays in the dirt while in the huddle. Most of the players on the defense have been in the system for two years. If they have trouble understanding their role or new wrinkles consistently without help, this team has a big problem.
Leonhard has almost become one of those guys who is so underrated that he's overrated. There are a lot of subtle things Jim does that did not always get a ton of press. Now it feels like these things are repeated to the point where they are a cliche. He is a good player, but he does have very real limitations. I tend to doubt he would have made up the four touchdowns the defense allowed over its average. The defense lost vastly more important players like Darrelle Revis and Kris Jenkins during the season and did not play like that. If the unit could survive losing its two best players, it should have been able to survive losing its ninth best.
One area where I think Leonhard going down might have affected the team most is on the emotional side of the game. He was a leader in the locker room. He clearly has the respect of his teammates because he is such a hard worker who gets the most from his limited natural athletic ability. Jim is kind of this generation's Wayne Chrebet. Reports were a pall went over the team when he went down. The coaches seemed especially crushed to lose such a model guy. I can't help but wonder whether the Laveranues Coles signing was just to try and infuse some lost leadership and a familiar respected face into a demoralized team. I know it's dangerous to try and tell things like this through the television, but there were times last night when it looked like the Jets weren't focused or competing. A few other people who watched said the same to me today. Perhaps the Leonhard injury was a serious emotional blow.
It's not an excuse, though. A team needs to overcome something like that.