Jabaal Sheard is making his presence felt. Stepping into the Patriots’ defensive line rotation with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich this season, the 26-year-old end had an auspicious start, getting four sacks in his first four games.
The former Cleveland Brown, who signed in March as a free agent for two years and $11 million, continues to make an impression for the 10-0 Patriots. His stat line for seven games includes the four sacks, 16 solo tackles, three assists, and a forced fumble.
The numbers might be larger but Sheard injured his ankle against Indianapolis Oct. 18 and missed three games. He came back in form.
Against the Giants Nov. 15, his first game back, he played 24 of 75 snaps (32 percent). In his next game, against the Bills this past Monday, that was bumped up to 48 of 71 snaps (68 percent).
But the stats don’t tell the whole story. Sheard made back-to-back important plays in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots led, 20-10, with Buffalo driving, first and 10 from the New England 15 and 5:05 to play. Sheard stopped running back LeSean McCoy for a 4-yard loss.
On the next play, second and 14, he went back into pass coverage and brought down Chris Hogan after a 4-yard gain. The Bills were held to a field goal on the drive.
“Jabaal’s a tremendous player,’’ said Jones, who is second in the league with 10½ sacks. “He has a lot of experience. He’s a great pass rusher. And if you haven’t noticed, he plays the run very well. Having him back is great.”
Sheard said a narrow focus is important to the defensive line’s success.
“We’ve just got to do our job, focus on our keys, stay disciplined, stay in the rushing lanes, whatever Coach asks us to do and do our job,” Sheard said after the Buffalo game.
The job against Buffalo was to keep quarterback Tyrod Taylor from running.
“That’s very important,’’ said Sheard. “Everybody’s got a job and that was our job, to keep him contained. He’s a great player, very athletic, very slippery. He made his plays.”
Taylor picked up a single yard in four carries.
The Patriots are now first in the league in points allowed at 182. Sunday’s opponent, Denver, is second at 183. However, it’s the Denver offense that has captured Sheard’s attention.
“That’s a great offense,’’ he said. “It’s a great line. That’s my biggest focus, on their whole line, we’re trying to stop the line. Those guys are big, fast, and strong. We’ve got to stop the run first.”
The soft-spoken Sheard doesn’t talk much, but he’s always listening.
After playing for three coaches during his four years with the Browns, Sheard had to learn new defensive schemes again when he joined the Patriots.
“I’m always learning,” he said.
All that listening is paying off on the front line.
“It’s really good to get a feel for one another,’’ said Sheard, “and get confident with your play.’’
Sheard also has gained the confidence of his coach, who appreciates his versatility.
“Jabaal has had a good year for us,’’ said Patriots coach Bill Belichick Wednesday. “He’s played some more inside than what we saw him play at Cleveland, so he’s done a good job in there.
“We’ve asked him to have some coverage responsibilities, which again is something he hasn’t done a lot of. Not that he’s a linebacker — I’m not saying that — but there are times when our ends are in coverage and he’s done all right on that.
“But he’s strong, he’s long, so he’s a hard guy to match up with offensively for the tackles or the guards when he gets inside because of his length inside, and he’s got a good combination of speed and power on the edge for the tackles that he can win with speed or he can win with power.
“So he has a good set of skills. He’s an instinctive player. He can find the ball. He has good awareness. He plays hard. He’s a tough kid. He plays hard.”
Sheard had trouble reviewing his success against Buffalo.
“I think every play is important and I always think about the plays that get away.’’ he said. “That’s what frustrates me.”
Sheard has been so intent on learning his job, he hasn’t spent much time in the community yet, something he likes to do. In Cleveland, he was named 2013 Walter Payton Man of the Year for his community service and playing excellence.
On Tuesday night, Sheard joined teammates at the Patriots’ Thanksgiving in a Basket event, handing out meals to families in need at Goodwill headquarters in Roxbury.
“I’ve been meaning to get out [into the community],’’ he said, “but I’ve been busy learning the system.
“It’s definitely great to get out and give back to the Boston community. No question, any time I can give back, I try to.”
It’s just another place he wants to make his presence felt.