KRAVITZ: Sheard has been a savior off the field, but can he help save the Colts’ defense?

Indianapolis Colts linebacker Jabaal Sheard runs a drill during practice at the NFL team's football training camp in Indianapolis, Monday, July 31, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
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Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - Before we talk about whether Jabaal Sheard can save the Colts’ defense and specifically provide them with something resembling an NFL-worthy pass rush, I wanted to tell you about the day, as a child, when he helped save the life of an 80-year-old woman.

Not that one has anything to do with the other – of course, it doesn’t – but it’s a story worth telling before diving into the role he needs to play with a defense that can’t help but improve (I mean…right?).

The story begins on the streets of Sheard’s hometown of Hollywood, Fla. One day when he was 11 years old, Sheard and his friends were riding their bikes through the neighborhood when they saw smoke billowing out of a nearby home, the roof aflame, the fire alarm sounding.

“Nobody was doing anything,’’ Sheard recalled. “People were just watching or going about their day. So me and three of my friends watched for a minute -- `What should we do?’ – then we rode a few blocks down the street to my house and called 911. Then we rushed back over and started trying to go in the house to help, but that’s when the ambulance arrived. Turned out she was cooking noodles at the time, then she fell and was unconscious. But they got her out of there on time.’’

And if Sheard and his friends hadn’t called?

“I don’t know,’’ he said. “I’d hate to think about it.’’

Sheard became an instant neighborhood hero. The next day, the Hollywood Fire Department let him and his friends ride in a fire truck. And a few days later, the city gave Sheard and company an award for bravery.

So why did he help while others stood around?

“It’s that thing in you; I’ve always been a person who tries to help other people,’’ said Sheard, whose continuing good works were recognized when he was the Browns 2013 Walter Payton Man of the Year candidate. “We’re just lucky we caught it in time.’’

The only time Sheard was afraid was two days later, when him and his friends visited the elderly woman in the hospital. “Back then, I was really afraid of hospitals,’’ he said. “I was more scared of that than the fire.’’

The woman survived and Sheard visited her on a few occasions just to check up on her.

Now then: football. And the question that must be answered in the affirmative: Can Sheard save this defense?

Can Sheard, along with all the new starters, provide the defense with the kind of production that helps it jump from the bottom of the league in virtually every defensive category to a ranking somewhere in the low to mid-20’s? That’s all the Colts need, really, assuming Andrew Luck can play. If the Colts are merely decent on defense, they can win games, lots of games, perhaps more than most of us expect. Last year, they weren’t even decent; they were dreadful, managed just 33 sacks and had the lowest-graded front seven in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.

Already, head coach Chuck Pagano is talking big about Sheard, an outside rush linebacker who averaged six sacks per season while playing four years with the Cleveland Browns and two with New England Patriots.

“He’s a big, physical guy and he’s a good pass rusher,’’ Chuck Pagano said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see him have double-digit sacks for us this year. We’re going to do a lot of things. He’s good against the run, he’s hard to block, he plays with great leverage, he’s got good length and he’s got good strength. If we do our job on first and second down and we get in third-down situations, [defensive coordinator] Ted [Monachino] and those guys are going to put him in position. He’s going to have his fair share of singles and then we’ll do some stuff to try to get some free runners. He’s doing a nice job right now.’’

Wait…double-digit sacks?

From Sheard?

It’s not impossible. Sheard had 23 sacks in four years with the Browns (15 ½ his first two seasons in Cleveland’s 4-3 scheme), then had eight sacks for the Patriots in 2015 before his production slipped a bit in 2016. That first year in New England, he had the defense’s highest grade on the team, according to Pro Football Focus. Then in 2016, he had just five sacks and 33 tackles, and was left home for a Patriots’ game against the San Francisco 49ers. Still, he played a significant role in the Super Bowl run, playing almost 60 percent of the snaps in the comeback victory against the Falcons, ultimately parlaying that into a three-year deal with the Colts.

“The goal of every defensive end is to get double-digits [in sacks]; that’s always been one of my goals,’’ he said. “If that helps the team win, great. If it’s my job to stop the run to help us win, that’s what I’m going to do. That’s what I’m here for. To lead by example.’’

In a more perfect world, the Colts could have saved the cash had Bjoern Werner panned out as Robert Mathis’ successor, but when you make draft mistakes, you end up chasing them in free agency, often for far more money.

At the very least, Sheard figures to be more productive than Mathis, who was hurt and playing on fumes all of last season. Mathis, who decided early in the season that 2016 would be his final year, finished with five sacks and 20 tackles. Sheard, by comparison, should be entering his physical prime at the age of 28. As Pagano sees it, Sheard, who is bigger than Mathis at 6-3, 265 pounds, should be used more frequently as a pass rusher rather than as a pass defender.

It hasn’t hurt that Sheard, along with the other pass rushers, are being tutored by Mathis himself this training camp.

“I’m still trying to learn that spin move,’’ he said, laughing. “But that’s going to take a lot to learn.’’

Can this defense improve? It almost HAS to improve. How do you get worse than the worst, or close to the worst in the league? The Colts took a hit when they chose to release Kendall Langford, the ironman defensive lineman whose injury issues forced the team to let him go. But the front three looks like it’s been upgraded with Johnathan Hankins, Al Woods and a healthy Henry Anderson, and the other outside linebacker spot will be manned by the productive John Simon, who was signed from Houston.

Still, though, there are lots of questions: Like who will emerge at the two inside linebacker spots? What will the secondary look like? Questions that will be answered in due course.

“Right now, we’re a blank slate,’’ Sheard said. “But I like where we are. I think we’ve got what it takes. We’re going in the right direction.’’

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