Romeus, Sheard put bite in Pitt's defense


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Everyone in the sellout crowd at Heinz Field could see that Pitt defensive end Jabaal Sheard was having an extraordinary game against Notre Dame, blowing by Irish offensive tackle Sam Young time after time and making life miserable for quarterback Jimmy Clausen, hurrying him into four incompletions and sacking him once. But this was ridiculous: "I hit [Clausen] twice in a row at the end, and they gave Jabaal the credit both times!" Pitt defensive end Greg Romeus was saying the other day.

On Notre Dame's next-to-last play in Pitt's 27-22 win Nov. 14, Romeus tossed aside offensive tackle Paul Duncan to hit Clausen as he threw, forcing an incompletion. On the last play, Romeus beat Duncan again and hit Clausen, forcing a fumble that Pitt's Myles Caragein recovered.

"Both times, the stadium announcer said, 'Clausen hit by No. 97, Jabaal Sheard,' " said Romeus, No. 91. "We laughed about it when we got to the sideline."

Of course, they had a good laugh. Why not? These days, there is plenty of credit to go around for a Pitt team that will take a 9-1 record and No. 8 ranking into its game at West Virginia tonight. Much of it belongs to the two junior defensive ends, who almost certainly will play in the NFL, perhaps next season.

A funny thing happened when Romeus and Sheard dialed up their games after slow starts this season, Sheard because of a summer knee injury and Romeus maybe because he bought in just a bit too much to the hype that Pitt -- led by its two All-World ends -- would have the best defensive line in college football: The Panthers' defense took off and the team won six games in a row.

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The season turned for everyone after the 38-31 loss Sept. 26 at North Carolina State, Pitt's only defeat. The Wolfpack -- a bad team that has lost six of seven games since -- put up 530 yards of offense. Romeus and Sheard weren't exactly invisible, but they were pretty close.

"My worst game of the season," Romeus said. "I didn't contribute anything to help the team win."

"I lost [outside] contain a bunch of times," Sheard said. "I had a lot to do with that loss."

"They were both embarrassed," Pitt defensive line coach Greg Gattuso said.

The next day, Gattuso met with Romeus for a man-to-man.

"I asked him, 'Do you want to be great or do you just want to be good?' " Gattuso said.

Clearly, the coach liked Romeus' answer. The kid practically begged to be told how to get better.

"You play like you practice," Gattuso said to Romeus. "You need to start practicing at a higher speed."

That next week, Romeus worked maniacally on the South Side practice field. He had his best game that Friday night against Louisville with 3 1/2 sacks and four quarterback pressures. He hasn't looked back since. During the six-game winning streak, he has -- according to Gattuso's video study -- six sacks, 16 pressures, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

"I'm never satisfied," Romeus said. "I still feel like I can play better. I make mistakes every week. Coach Gattuso reminds me of them every day."

Said Gattuso, "What a perfect example Greg has been to hold up for the other guys."

Sheard got the message. "I don't want to feel that feeling that I had after the N.C. State game ever again," he said.

So did defensive tackles Mick Williams and Gus Mustakas, who are so strong against the run and the pass and make the front four so stout that Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett seldom has to call blitzes. Gattuso has such a deep bunch and has done such a marvelous job with them that backup linemen Caragein, Brandon Lindsey and Chas Alecxih have combined for 13 1/2 of the Panthers' nation-leading 40 sacks.

"The days of beating up Pitt's defensive line are over, hopefully," Gattuso said.

Hopefully?

They're over.

The Pitt D-line should be even better next season if Romeus and Sheard return. Williams and Mustakas will be out of eligibility, but Caragein and Alecxih figure to step in nicely. Both have NFL potential.

And Romeus and Sheard?

The guess here is both will be back, although they would be crazy not to go through the process with the NFL draft advisory board to get an idea where they might be selected. Romeus, who took a redshirt year in 2006, is a little further along and could be a first-round pick, which is awfully hard to turn down for another season in college. Sheard, in just his third year at Pitt, is more likely to return. Both are doing well in school, Romeus as a communications major and Sheard as a forensic science major and real-life David Caruso wannabe. Neither said he has thought much about the NFL. Not with the game at West Virginia and one against Cincinnati at Heinz Field Dec. 5 for the Big East Conference championship and a trip to a BCS game dead ahead.

"I can't say the thought of the NFL hasn't popped into my head," Romeus said. "But all I'm interested in now is winning these last three games. That's the great thing about this team. Guys aren't worried about themselves or the next level. We just want to win the championship."

Really, who cares who gets the credit when there's a title at stake?

"I'm not dying to play in the NFL right now," Sheard said. "I'm just dying to get that ring."




Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com . By Ron Cook


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