Rich Hofmann | Sheppard the scholar


Posted: August 21, 2007

THE ADMONITION in the public-service announcements goes like this: "Bet with your head, not over it." In many ways, it defines the style of Eagles cornerback Lito Sheppard.

He is not a gambler, he says.

He is a student of tendencies, he insists.

Sheppard makes these grand, spectacular, flashy plays - they are his trademark now, as his sixth NFL season is about to begin. He returned an interception for a touchdown in the Eagles' exhibition win the other night over Carolina, and it was a classic Lito kind of play. There was a weak throw, and there was good positioning, and there was this great, anticipatory burst - and then Sheppard

was gone. It is what he does.

He jumps routes and asks

questions later.

But it is not aggressiveness gone wild. Sheppard insists that spectacular weekend moves are the result of midweek drudgery, of film study and book study and the years of experience all coming together. He says the interceptions on Sunday are really born on Wednesday most weeks.

A calculator, then? Yes.

But a gambler? No.

"I don't look at [myself] as that type of player," Sheppard was saying yesterday in the Eagles' locker room. "A lot of people might say I play like that, but it's more instincts and reading what I see. Somebody else might not see the same thing or might not interpret it the way I do, but that's what makes me, me. That's what allows me to play the way I play. I might be looking deeper than somebody else who might be looking into the play . . .

"As long as I'm not giving up big plays, I think I'm all right," he said.

For as long as Andy Reid has been the Eagles' coach, the strength of the defense has

really been on the back end, in the secondary. It is still that way. Everybody in football will tell you about the importance of a pass rush, and there is no

denying this, and there is no

camouflaging how much

attention and how much money the Eagles have thrown at that problem over the last few years - to decidedly mixed results.

But at the back end, there has been consistent excellence. Down through the years,

beginning with Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, to today with Sheppard and Sheldon Brown (and apparently William James, sort of), with safety Brian

Dawkins as the bridge between the eras, there has been a high level of play that has allowed

defensive coordinator Jim Johnson to blitz a bunch with the rest of his defenders.

The style of play sometimes stresses the secondary, but it handles it with a very even temperament. It is built from the back to the front, with Sheppard occupying the hottest of the hot seats.

"Considering how the rules have changed, this league is about scoring points," he said. "When you have good corners who can definitely cover and stop the big plays, you can definitely have a successful defense. That's only one part of it, but you definitely have to start with good cover corners in order to get your defense to run."

Ask him if he is one of the best corners in the NFL and Sheppard says that he is. When people make lists of the league's shutdown corners, he is near the top of some of them, but not all. It's a funny position in some ways, a position where your excellence is demonstrated by a kind of inaction. The best corners get thrown at the least. The best

corners force the best receivers into other areas of the field.

"It's not even about the receiver a lot of times," Sheppard said, trying to explain his philosophy. "When I'm out there playing, I'm playing for myself. I'm playing to satisfy Lito, to compete with Lito on the inside. It's nothing against the receiver . . . I'm just doing my job and doing it to the best of my ability. Just know I'm trying to win that play."

Reid said yesterday that

Sheppard is probably about

to enter the pinnacle portion of his career. Sheppard said, "This is my fourth year of starting.

After 4 years, I think you're just touching the tip of the iceberg."

He says his goals change every year, that they get bigger as he gets better. Make no mistake: Sheppard is a confident man. A cornerback without some swagger is useless in the NFL in 2007, and Sheppard has his share.

He says, "A lot of times when I'm out there, it's all on instincts and reactions. I believe in myself and I believe what I see. So if I see something, I know why I jumped it. It's not just because I'm guessing or anything. It's

because I put the time into the film and the books and the study, and I felt comfortable with what they were going to do. A lot of times, you look at it as gambling. I look at it as good study work.

"It's 90 percent mental," he said. "The other 10 percent,

you're born with." *

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