BEREA — Defensive end Jabaal Sheard had an attention-grabbing rookie season in 2011. He led the Browns with 8½ sacks, started all 16 games and totaled 55 tackles.
But his debut wasn’t perfect. Far from it.
Sheard admits to leaving a few sacks on the field, but the area in need of the most improvement was his play against the run. Sheard failed too often to set the proper edge, one of many problems for a run defense that was dreadful once again.
For the Browns to make significant strides this year, the run defense must be markedly improved. While the defense ranked 10th overall and fifth in scoring in 2011, it was 30th against the rush, allowing 147.4 yards a game.
Sheard plans to be part of the solution.
“You just always look to get better,” he said. “You always think you did good, but that ain’t good enough. There’s always time for improvement, and I definitely want to improve in the run game.”
At 6-foot-2, 255 pounds, Sheard isn’t the biggest end. In fact, he’s 25 pounds lighter than free-agent acquisition Frostee Rucker, who will start at right end. But general manager Tom Heckert doesn’t mind his ends being a little undersized and quicker, and Sheard is plenty big enough to stop the run.
“He’s got to understand obviously this game and where he fits in his gaps and situations where it’s going to be a run,” coach Pat Shurmur said.
Sheard has been getting tutorials from Rucker and Juqua Parker, another veteran free-agent signee. They’ve watched film of last season and pointed out areas where Sheard can sharpen his game.
“Sometime before the play recognizing what’s coming,” Sheard said. “Seeing where they are loaded, you can see the fullback offset and the tight end to me, I got a better chance they’re going to run toward me. Just noticing that and technique a little bit. With the tight end, getting rid of him faster and getting a chance to get off and make the play in the backfield.”
Sheard, a second-round pick out of Pittsburgh, is also working on fine-tuning his technique, but he believes paying closer attention before the snap will make the greatest difference.
“As long as you know what’s coming, it always will help you,” he said. “You know where to lean to, you know where their power is at and you know where your help’s coming from on defense. So it’s definitely the preparation before the play.
“But sometimes I lose focus on what I need to focus on, as far as the tight end. I want to fight back into the tackle when all I need to do is attack the tight end.”
Sheard did plenty of attacking the quarterback last year. In addition to the sacks, he had five forced fumbles, one recovery and two passes defensed.
He has a mixture of speed and strength that combines for an explosiveness difficult for tackles to handle. Rookie second-rounder Mitchell Schwartz has been the unlucky soul drawing most of the one-on-one matchups in camp.
“He’s a great player. He’s got a little bit of everything,” Schwartz said. “He’s got the speed and the quickness, he’s good with his hands, he’s also got some power to him. So he’s a pretty complete player.”
Sheard is feeling more at home in his second year, and it’s noticeable in the way he jokes with teammates. Besides the year of NFL experience, he is back on the left side of the defensive line after beginning his rookie year on the unfamiliar right side.
Heckert thought he could make the transition, but the coaches realized early in the season he was more comfortable and a better fit on the left. He made the switch in Week 2 and steadily improved.
The difference in a year has been obvious to Sheard.
“I was nervous a little bit when I came out, then I got out on the field and I was going against Joe,” Sheard said of Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas. “So I was like, I don’t know if I can really play here.
“We got into the games, and it’s just football is football. It’s something I definitely want to be great at. I definitely want to be the best at my position, that’s what I work for. I don’t know yet where I stand — there are some elite guys out there. But I hope one day I can be one of those guys.”
Sheard’s favorite end to watch is Indianapolis’ Dwight Freeney, even though they have different body types and repertoires. But Sheard said he watches all types of pass rushers, including 3-4 linebackers like Pittsburgh’s James Harrison.
Sheard feels there’s room for growth in his pass rush and expects to reach double digits this season.
“There’s some sacks I probably could’ve had if I finish the play,” he said of last year. “Drop a shoulder, small things that I didn’t know last year that I’m working to improve during camp.”
Defensive tackle Scott Paxson said Sheard has the right mentality to make the necessary adjustments and take his overall game to the next level.
“He knows what he needs to work on,” Paxson said. “He needs to be a little tougher against the run, that’s all of us.
“I think Jabaal’s only going to keep progressing because he’s not a hurrah, hurrah guy. He knows what he has to do and he goes out and does it.”