By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: With the Browns preparing to face an elite quarterback and one of the hottest running backs in the NFL when they visit the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, the importance of outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard returning to action shouldn’t be underestimated.
“Having him back is a lot more important than I think a lot of people realize,” starting left outside linebacker Paul Kruger said Friday after practice. “He’s an explosive player, big-play type of guy. You can’t run on his side. He’s a dominant player. He’s going to be a highly paid guy eventually. He’s one of those guys.”
Sheard sat out the past three games after suffering a sprained left knee while recovering a fumble Sept. 22 against the Minnesota Vikings. He tried to return last week against the Detroit Lions, but the Browns (3-3) erred on the side of caution and rested him after he participated in pregame warm-ups.
This weekend should be a different story for Sheard, who’ll play with a brace on his left knee. He fully participated in practice throughout the week and insists he’s confident about his health.
“I feel pretty good,” said Sheard, who’s listed as probable for Sunday. “It hasn’t been an issue.”
“I felt like a fan up in the stands [watching the past three games]. I was a huge fan up there, but I’m happy to be back with these guys.”
Sheard’s ability to rush the passer and defend the run could prove to be vital against quarterback Aaron Rodgers and rookie running back Eddie Lacy.
Rodgers, who was named Super Bowl Most Valuable Player when the Packers ended the 2010 season by winning the title, ranks fifth in the league this season with a passer rating of 101.9.
“I don’t know if I’ve faced one like him before,” said Sheard, a 2011 second-round draft pick who converted from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker in the offseason. “We played [Denver Broncos star quarterback] Peyton Manning last year. That’s kind of where I see him, one of those guys. He knows the coverage. He knows what you’re doing. He makes smart decisions. He always gets rid of the ball and never really gives up a sack.”
Sheard, who tallied 15 tackles, including 1½ sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in three games this season, agrees with defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s assessment of Rodgers.
“Is he the best quarterback in the prime of his career?” Horton said. “Yeah, I think he is.”
The key to keeping any good quarterback in check is pressure. With Sheard back in the lineup, the Browns will have a rotation of their top four outside linebackers — Sheard, Kruger, rookie Barkevious Mingo and Quentin Groves — intact for the first time since Sept. 15 against the Ravens, when Groves suffered a high ankle sprain.
“It’s a big boost because when everybody’s healthy, when everybody’s back playing, it takes a load off us and we can get those breaks,” Mingo said. “When you’re in there, you’re 100 percent. So you’re expected to make those plays that come to you. There’s no excuse.”
Sheard was the starting right outside linebacker opposite Kruger before he was hurt. In Sheard’s absence, Mingo started the past three games, but he said he would be fine with Sheard returning to a starting role.
“We’re stronger with him back,” Mingo said.
Browns coach Rob Chudzinski wouldn’t reveal whether he plans to start Sheard against the Packers (3-2).
“We’ll work all of those guys depending on the package,” Chudzinski said. “We have different packages for all of them. I look at it like we have three starters, and we’re going to roll them. Hopefully we can get them to where the amount of reps they’re getting are close to the same. I think that’ll help our effectiveness.”
Although Mingo has three sacks in five games, he has struggled against the run. He lost contain Oct. 3 against the Buffalo Bills, allowing running back C.J. Spiller to break loose for a 54-yard touchdown run. And a blocker sealed him Sunday, springing Lions running back Reggie Bush for a 39-yard run.
“I took that as a challenge and didn’t want it to happen anymore,” Mingo said. “But I think we’ve got that fixed, closing the edge, not letting anybody bounce out and just making the plays that come to me.”
The 6-foot-2, 255-pound Sheard’s presence could be crucial against another tough runner. Lacy, a second-round pick in this year’s draft, has rushed for 99 and 120 yards in the past two games. He had 23 carries both times.
“He’s pretty explosive once he gets going,” Sheard said. “He knows how to find the hole. They do a good job of passing the ball and then coming back and running the ball, and that creates big plays for them.”
Kruger, though, believes Sheard will make an immediate impact upon his return.
“He adds a ton of value to this team and this defense,” Kruger said. “He’s a playmaker. He can literally change a game by himself. He’s definitely a guy we need out there. I think it shows up everywhere. Against the Vikings, he had the sack-fumble. Definitely against the run, he’s as stout a guy as they come. It’s definitely good to have him back.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.