By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor
Jabaal Sheard considers himself “kind of quiet and laid back” when he’s not playing left defensive end for the Browns. He doesn’t look to cause a commotion, choosing to pretty much stay to himself and be with his family.
“But on the field, I’m like a whole other dude,” Sheard says. “I’m amped up, I’m going hard every play. The guy across from me, I probably curse him out the whole game. A whole other person just comes out, but it’s all between the whistle. After the game, we shake hands. But during the game, it’s just that competitive thing on the field when you’re going against a guy. I’m very competitive.”
That’s the view teammates and coaches have of Sheard, whose four sacks tie him with right end Frostee Rucker for second on the team. Sheard has three sacks in his last five games, including last Sunday’s 30-7 victory against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Since joining the Browns as a second-round draft pick from the University of Pittsburgh, Sheard has established himself as a player who only knows one speed when he’s playing – full speed. Regardless of the down. Regardless of how much time is left in the game. Regardless of the score.
As a rookie, Sheard mostly got by on his hustle and aggressiveness because he didn’t know a whole lot about the Browns’ defensive scheme or proper techniques, and he lacked the strength to effectively tangle with most NFL offensive tackles. The lockout and his recovery from elbow surgery he underwent shortly after his collegiate career prevented Sheard from doing much of anything before the 2011 season, including lifting weights.
He still was able to lead the Browns with eight-and-a-half sacks, putting him third among NFL rookies behind San Francisco linebacker Aldon Smith (14) and Denver linebacker Von Miller (11 ½). But it was more on raw speed and athleticism than anything else.
“Last year, I was just out there running around,” recalls Sheard, who has 38 tackles (six for loss) and four passes defensed. “I didn’t really know the plays as well and how everybody else fit. I kind of had that free will to do whatever. I’d jump around blocks instead of taking on big tackles.
“But this year I’m able to take on the block and pick up a big tackle and get rid of him and stay in my gap. We got run on a lot last year by guys like (Baltimore’s) Ray Rice and (Jacksonville’s) Maurice Jones-Drew. So that was kind of something I wanted to pay attention to in the offseason, get stronger and bulk up, and just be able to stop that. This year, I’ve been able to get in the weight room and just go hard. I actually got up to 400 pounds in benching.”
Dick Jauron, the Browns’ defensive coordinator, sees significant improvement in Sheard. He has been impressed with how much Sheard has learned since last year and how much more of a complete defensive end he has become.
“I think he knows the game better,” Jauron says. “He knows our scheme better. He certainly has got a better feel for the league. But he’s the same guy. He’s just a better player. He’s stronger and just as quick, or quicker. I think he’s a terrific football player.”
Defensive tackle Phil Taylor, the Browns’ first-round pick last year, admires Sheard’s quickness off the ball, some of which is due to Sheard’s natural skills.
However, as Taylor points out, most of it is because of the considerable work Sheard puts into giving himself the greatest advantage possible against his opponent.
“He works on the cadences of the quarterback, and listening to how they say the cadence,” Taylor says. “A lot of us try to do that, but he gets off the ball really well.”
Says Rucker: “Jabaal gets it. He’s a hard-working kid that wants to be great. As we watch film and watch a lot of guys around the league, and the success they get, I know Jabaal is just eyeing that and he wants to win the sack title in the NFL. He wants to go to Pro Bowls, and he knows it’s going to start with playing team ball first.”
That begins with practice. Sheard doesn’t go through the motions there, either.
He makes a point of bringing his best on every snap because he knows it goes a long way toward helping to enhance his game. He also knows that it does plenty to raise the performance level of his teammates, including those on the other side of the ball.
In particular, Sheard’s practice effort has had an enormous impact on Mitchell Schwartz, the Browns’ rookie starter at right tackle who has regularly faced Sheard in practice since the start of offseason workouts.
“He’s definitely made me a better player,” Schwartz says. “I think the thing that’s unique about him is he’s got the speed and the quickness, but he’s also pretty strong as well. Some guys are more one-trick ponies. He’s able to kind of do a little bit of everything. He can get you outside, he can get you inside. He can bull-rush you down the middle. He keeps you pretty balanced.
“The good thing about practicing against a guy like that is you’re going to get the same effort all the time, whether it’s the back side of a run, whether it’s the front side of a pass play. He doesn’t take plays off. He’s always working on something. He’s very good at either working on what he’s working on or taking advantage of what the offensive guy gives him. If the guy sets too far out, he’ll take the inside. If the guy opens up on him, he’ll go down the middle. He’s good at having a plan, but also having counters based on what the guy he’s going against is doing.”
Those are among the reasons the Browns’ coaches feel that their left defensive end position, and their defensive line in general, benefits greatly from Sheard’s presence.
“I like watching him practice, I like watching him in a football game,” Jauron says. “And when he’s out there, I feel very comfortable. I know we’ve got a chance to win every game with guys like that.”
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