Case in point: Defensive end Jabaal Sheard only has 1½ quarterback sacks in the Browns’ first nine games — putting him well off the pace from his 9½-sack rookie season.
Yet, his performance has repeatedly been praised by Cleveland’s coaching staff, which analyzes every second of game film.
“I think Jabaal is a little bit of a target because teams know he’s an outstanding pass rusher, so they can do things to tip the protection his way,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said.
“I can definitely say he’s played the run better than he did last year at this point. And when we talk about the raw numbers (individual player grades), I still feel like he’s battling and contributing in a pretty significant way.”
So does the 6-foot-2, 255-pounder, who made a season-high eight tackles and netted one-half sack Sunday against the powerful Baltimore Ravens.
Sheard said the return of defensive tackles Phil Taylor made a big difference in his production. Taylor had been sidelined since the spring after tearing his left pectoral.
“It was great to have Big Phil back, since he’s so powerful off the ball and his explosion is incredible to watch,” said Sheard, who has 84 tackles in 25 NFL games.
“He’s just so big, too, him taking up two bodies on the line frees me up to make plays. If he rushes high, you can slide underneath on passes. We’ve always worked well together, so it’s nice to be able to continue that now.”
While defensive coordinator Dick Jauron and Shurmur have gone out of their way to compliment Sheard, many fans believe his lack of sacks represent a lack of quality play.
Nothing could be further than the truth, however, according to both coaches.
With Taylor and fellow defensive tackle behemoth Ahtyba Rubin plagued by injuries, opposing teams opted to neutralize Sheard and defensive end Frostee Rucker for strategic reasons.
By correctly gambling that rookie defensive tackles John Hughes and Billy Winn would make fewer plays, those opponents ran roughshod over Cleveland’s line and diminished the tackle totals of Sheard and Rucker.
“Baltimore gave me the one-on-one treatment for the first time in forever,” Sheard said. “That makes a big difference, believe me.
“Once we get all our guys healthy, you’ll see what kind of a defense we can really be. We’re pretty good now with Phil, but we’ll be a lot better when Big Rube (Rubin) gets back.”
The University of Pittsburgh product admits that he would love to have more sacks, given his longstanding reputation as a quarterback crusher, but believes they could come in bunches once the Browns return from their bye on Nov. 18 at Dallas.
Sheard plans on heading home to Florida for the weekend to “get a couple of massages to try and stop my muscles from feeling so tight,” but has downloaded plenty of Cowboys game film onto his iPad to watch. He vows to come back mentally and physically refreshed for the final seven games of the season.
“It’s all part of the game, treating your body right and keeping your brain focused on doing your job,” Sheard said. “Even when you’re relaxing, you have to remember that you’re playing football for a living. We’re fortunate to be able to do this every day, so it’s your responsibility to be the best player you can be.”