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12-08-2011, 05:55 AM
Former Pitt standout has Tomlin's attention

By Ralph N. Paulk
Thursday, December 8, 2011

CLEVELAND On Monday, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin lavishly praised rookie defensive end Jabaal Sheard, a Pitt product who quickly settled in as a starter for a revamped Cleveland Browns defense.

Tomlin challenged rookie offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert to be ready when he squares up against Sheard on Thursday night at Heinz Field.

"We have to do a good job against Sheard," Tomlin said. "It's going to be a big challenge for Marcus Gilbert, one that he better quickly establish himself with because if he's going to continue to be our right tackle, he's going to continue to see Sheard."

Tomlin, though, didn't expect the former Panther to line up opposite the Steelers' offensive front when the AFC North rivals meet for the first time this season. At best, he predicted Sheard's NFL future depended greatly on his commitment to special teams.

"If what Tomlin said added any extra fuel to Jabaal's tank, I'm glad he said it," Cleveland linebacker D'Quell Jackson said. "There's a lot of pressure on a rookie who starts, but he's handled it well."

It didn't take long for Sheard to prove Tomlin wrong. The 6-2, 255-pounder earned the starting job midway through training camp.

So far, Sheard has been overshadowed by rookie quarterbacks Cam Newton and Andy Dalton. He isn't a likely candidate for rookie of the year, but he's put together some impressive numbers: a league-leading five forced fumbles and is second among rookies with 5.5 sacks.

"It's not just about the sacks," Tomlin said. "The guy is consistently providing pressure and breaking down the right side of pockets, affecting throws that are made to that side of the field."

Of course, Tomlin didn't envision Sheard having an immediate impact. Actually, neither did Sheard.

"When I got here, I thought maybe (Tomlin) was right," said Sheard, who the Browns selected with the 37th overall pick. "I had no idea I was going to start. I was hoping to get a chance to play special teams since he said that would be the biggest part of my game."

Instead, Sheard has proven to be a perfect fit for the Browns, especially after first-year coach Pat Shurmur dumped the 3-4 for the 4-3 defense.

"Coach (Dave) Wannstedt ran the same kind of defense at Pitt," Sheard said. "It was the biggest part of my progress having played in that defense before.

"If I played linebacker in the 3-4, I'd be lost. We ran the same kind of stunts at Pitt, but in the end football is football."

The Browns made more deals than a stock broker on draft day in an effort to rebuild their defense. They snatched up defensive tackle Phil Taylor in the first round, and didn't hesitate in taking Sheard off the draft board in the second.

The Browns had the 22nd-ranked defense in the league last season. Even though they are sometimes vulnerable against the run, the Browns are eighth in total defense.

"For what Cleveland is trying accomplishing after switching over from their traditional 3-4, taking guys from a 4-3 set, Sheard brought a lot of natural skills set to the Browns," Steelers offensive tackle Max Starks said. "He's been able to fine-tune things and he's learned a few tricks."

Still, the Browns have struggled this season after getting off to a 2-1 start. They haven't yet figured out how to win games that have been there for the taking.

With Sheard and Taylor, Jackson is convinced the Browns are destined to narrow the competitive gap with their division foes -- including playoff contenders Baltimore (9-3) and Cincinnat (7-5).

"Jabaal is one of those players who knows what to do, but he does things you can't coach," Jackson said. "I didn't know what to expect when he came in, but he's playing above his years.

"What separates him from a lot of rookies is that he can rush the passer and play the run. Usually, with young guys, you get one or the other."

Admittedly, Sheard struggled some at the start of training camp. But he grasped the complex defensive terminology despite missing mini-camp and off-season drills that were wiped out by the lockout.

"Sometimes, I'm still a little nervous out there," he said. "I think after the Indianapolis game (27-19 victory) my confidence soared after I made a few plays. Everybody kept telling me I could play, and that boost my confidence."

Ralph N. Paulk can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com or 412-320-7923 .

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