It was easy to overlook as the Browns rolled through their three-game winning streak.
Their defense steadily ranked among the NFL’s best, so it was widely presumed that all was good on that side of the ball.
Except that it wasn’t.
There was a glaring hole at outside linebacker – the one caused by the knee injury
Then came Sunday’s loss to the Lions. And after a second-half collapse in which the Browns were outscored, 24-0, the pain of Sheard’s injury quickly expanded beyond his knee and was felt throughout the rest of the defense and by many others jolted by the sudden end of one of the better feel-good stretches the team has enjoyed in a long time.
That made Wednesday’s news that Sheard returned to practice and is expected to play at Green Bay Sunday the most positive development in a week dominated by the lingering sting from the Detroit game.
“It’ll be big getting Jabaal back,” coach Rob Chudzinski said.
The reasons are many.
Let’s start with the fact that, before his injury, Sheard was performing the best of any member of the Browns’ front seven. That was no easy task, given the high-profile acquisitions of outside linebacker
But Sheard cleared it with ease.
“He picked it up very quickly and a lot quicker than I expected or we expected,” Chudzinski said. “That was a real pleasant surprise.”
Sheard made his presence felt throughout offseason workouts, training camp, and the preseason. And through his first two-plus games, he had a sack-and-a-half, forced and recovered a fumble against the Vikings, and had 15 tackles (including five solo). He also knocked down a pass.
Besides generating consistent pressure on the quarterback, Sheard was a major force against the run. It was that part of his game that was sorely missed as the Browns, after mostly stuffing the rushing attacks of their first four opponents, gave up 155 and 118 rushing yards, respectively, against the Bills and Lions.
Although Sheard had an impressive rookie season in 2011 with 8.5 sacks, he has been a far more complete player this year, increasing his repertoire of pass-rush moves and doing an impressive job in pass coverage.
“From a pass-rushing standpoint he has a variety of moves and he has power and he has the ability to get around guys,” Chudzinski said. “It’s something that he’s developed over time. He’s really improved in the things that he hasn’t done, like dropping (into coverage) and those types of things. He understands the defense very well.”
One of the larger dilemmas caused by Sheard’s injury was the Browns’ inability to do as much rotating of players in their front seven as they did through the first two-plus games. Consequently, Kruger and Mingo were forced to take what Chudzinski called “a lot more snaps than we’d ideally like them to have.”
Kruger only has one sack this season, and his game clearly has been impacted by not having Sheard’s complementary presence opposite him.
“With the three of those guys (Kruger, Sheard, and Mingo) and then (outside linebacker)
Particularly a guy named Sheard.
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