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No Longer All In The Wrist

Posted Dec 22, 2011

Linebacker Schofield has come a long way in learning defense

Linebacker O'Brien Schofield tracks down Browns quarterback Seneca Wallace for the second of two sacks last weekend, forcing a fumble on the play.

Anymore, the wristband is just for show – at least on game days.

O’Brien Schofield will still use it at practice, strapped to his left hand, especially on Wednesdays when the game plan is just being put in. But it’s no longer like training camp when it was essential. The linebacker is a different player now.

The back-to-back sacks he put on Browns quarterback Seneca Wallace last weekend changed the game, and it’s the kind of thing he was planning on making a regular occurrence this season. It was necessary, almost, since the Cards desperately needed a pass rusher to make an impact.

The script got changed along the way, though. Schofield stumbled through camp, struggling with how to play in defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s new scheme. Rookie Sam Acho came out of nowhere to surpass Schofield on the depth chart. The wristband wasn’t just help, it was crucial so Schofield wouldn’t be swallowed up by the learning curve.

“It was just humbling,” Schofield said. “I didn’t do everything I needed to do right off the bat to be that guy. My ability hasn’t changed. I am a pass rusher. And my opportunities are opening up. Every time I’m out there I am trying to make a play.”

The expectations, coach Ken Whisenhunt said, were probably out of whack. Schofield, 2010’s fourth-round draft pick, blew out his knee at the 2010 Senior Bowl and didn’t get a training camp as a rookie – not even starting to practice until midseason.

The lockout robbed him of a second chance at organized team activities too. His window to learn hadn’t been much greater than Acho, who was the fourth-round pick this past April.

The first warning sign for Schofield’s hiccup came early in camp, when then-starter Joey Porter rested for a night practice and it was Acho and not Schofield replacing him with the first team.

“We talk all the time about life, football, whatever,” fellow linebacker Daryl Washington said. “He was frustrated early on, and he got tired of coaches getting on to him. I told him, ‘Hey, when the coaches stop coaching you, that’s when you should be worried.’ I think he took a different approach then and really started getting into his playbook.

“No one wants to be that guy who everyone is pointing at and saying, ‘You have to pick yourself up.’ ”

Schofield began to use flash cards in the dorms in Flagstaff to test himself with the new defense. And Horton told him about the wristband, an aid that Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison used in Pittsburgh back when Harrison was just trying to understand the complicated scheme.

Schofield didn’t need too much convincing – ““I bought into the idea right away because whatever it took for me to get on the field,” he said – but it still has been a process. One of Schofield’s best early-season plays, a strip-sack of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in Baltimore, admittedly came off a broken play in which he didn’t execute as drawn up.

“What you always want to see from young players is progress and I have to give O’Brien credit for that,” Whisenhunt said. “He has made progress. Probably not as much (progress) as expectations were for him, but those were probably unrealistic based on what he had to face.”

Acho became the starter when Porter got hurt and left the lineup for good, and Schofield acknowledged his teammate had earned it. There was a blow to the ego, however, because “I felt certain aspects, I should have gotten a little more playing time,” Schofield said. “But that’s not my job to decide that.”

Instead he kept working. He not only got the two sacks against the Browns, but Schofield had his best game against Cleveland, Whisenhunt said, because the mental mistakes were absent. If he continues to play that way, Schofield figures to play a huge role with Acho next season.

The wristband probably won’t last until then, although it will remain a fixture at least through the end of this season.

“Once I get to the game, it’s just a ritual now,” Schofield said. “I wear it because I have been wearing it so long.

“My football IQ has gone up a lot.”

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