Sharper a big hit for Ravens in playoffs

Pro Football

January 18, 2002|By Mike Preston

JAMIE SHARPER has always lived in the shadow of fellow Ravens linebackers Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware, and still does.

Lewis has taken his game to another level in recent weeks, and Boulware seems to have found a comfort zone at defensive end with four sacks against the Minnesota Vikings in the season finale.

And Sharper?

Well, he had five tackles against Minnesota and returned a fumble for the touchdown that sealed the 19-3 win against the Vikings. Last week against the Dolphins, Sharper had four tackles, including one sack, knocked down a pass at the line of scrimmage and forced a fumble. If Cris Carter just catches touchdown passes, then Sharper just makes big plays in big games.

Here's more: Last season, Sharper had a team-high nine tackles, including two sacks, and an interception in the AFC championship game, and had six tackles in the playoff win against Tennessee.

If there is an unsung hero on this defense, it's Sharper.

"In the postseason, everybody is turning it up," said Sharper, a fifth-year veteran. "People play at different levels at different times, and some players disappear in the playoffs. You work your entire season to get to this point, and if you lose, you go home. Big players have to make big plays in big games."

Sharper is basically lost in a black hole created by Boulware and Lewis. Lewis is the five-time Pro Bowl pick, the fancy dancer in the custom-designed suits who has created one of the worst introductory dances in league history. Boulware gets fame just because of the sacks. It's the nature of being a pass-rushing specialist.

There is nothing flashy about Sharper. Baggy pants and oversized shirts often hide a lean body. Floppy hats and 1950s cat's-eye glasses are the norm. Ask Sharper his favorite hobbies, and he replies: "Sleeping during the season and traveling during the off-season."

That's about it.

On the field, he was hired as a rookie in 1997 to basically become the second-leading tackler on the team behind Lewis. In the Ravens' scheme, Sharper, who is usually uncovered as the weak-side linebacker, should always be second or third on the team in tackles, because almost everyone else shoots gaps and that forces running backs to the outside, basically leaving Lewis and Sharper running "downhill" - meaning they're pursuing laterally with no blockers in their way.

But Sharper didn't start catching on until Jack Del Rio became his position coach three years ago. He taught Sharper about keys and proper pursuit angles. Sharper had 102 tackles last season, third on the team. He has 135 this year, second behind Lewis' 196. He also has knocked down 12 passes, tied for second on the team.

"The biggest thing for Jamie is watching himself every day, listening, and then improving," said defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "He always takes things to heart, such as accepting the coaching, making the corrections and moving forward. As far as postseason, he loves to win - you can see the lights come on - and he wants more and more responsibilities in doing things."

Sharper has become more of a complete player, and he says he should have earned Pro Bowl honors the past two seasons. When he first came to Baltimore, the Ravens used him primarily on running situations, but he has earned his way onto the field for all occasions. But he is still lacking in one major category.

Pro Bowl outside linebackers get sacks, plenty of them. Sharper had only six during the regular season.

"Most of the Pro Bowl outside guys have about 18 or 19 sacks," said Sharper. "I've had my chances, let the quarterback get away. I also should have had more interceptions, but dropped them in coverage. But what is more important is winning championships. When I was at Virginia, we won a lot of games, but sometimes didn't get into a major bowl. I'd rather have a championship ring than go to the Pro Bowl."

Sharper said he likes the team's chances of repeating as Super Bowl champions, but hasn't bought into the rhetoric of the Ravens' having found that magic formula from a year ago.

"We weren't playing well at the end of the season," said Sharper. "We lost to Tampa and didn't play well against Minnesota. There was a lot of talk from the players about us playing like last season, but we weren't sure. After Miami, it showed that we are capable of playing like that, but we're not back there yet."

Whether the Ravens win the Super Bowl or not, this likely will be the last hurrah for the defense. The salary cap presents only a small window for titles, and the Ravens' is closing. Important decisions will have to be made on veterans such as defensive ends Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett and safety Rod Woodson. They'll probably be waived and forced to either retire or play for other teams.

There is speculation Sharper might be one of the players left unprotected on the expansion list, which has to be provided within 48 hours of the last game. There are four defensive players who will command big salaries in the off-season, either through free agency or the restructuring of contracts. Sharper is one whose deal could be redone. Defensive tackle Sam Adams, Boulware and cornerback Duane Starks are the others who will get big dollars one way or the other.

Only two will likely get them from the Ravens.

"A lot of us realize that some of us won't be back next season," said Sharper. "In this business, you're only as good as your last game. But all of that is beyond my control. I plan on playing every game the best that I can. It's the playoffs; it's time to make big plays."

Few have done it better in the past two years.

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