On many NFL teams, the leading tackler is usually the hulking middle linebacker--someone with a nasty disposition who spews rage on every play. On the Washington Redskins, he's the 201-pound strong safety with a storybook name and unassuming personality.
Sam Shade hasn't created the buzz that surrounds rookie cornerback Champ Bailey. And he hasn't dominated highlight reels like defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, who shook FedEx Field to its foundation by intercepting a pass against the Chicago Bears and thundering 88 yards for a touchdown Oct. 31.
But in quiet, effective fashion, Shade has delivered more than Redskins officials had hoped when they signed him as a free agent last February in an attempt to help mend a fraying defensive backfield. Through 10 games, Shade leads the Redskins with 105 tackles, including 72 solo. And he is coming off his most impressive outing yet, having recorded seven tackles, one sack and an interception in last week's 23-13 victory over the New York Giants.
A soft-spoken native of Birmingham, Shade shies from the limelight. But he has played his way into it in recent weeks as the Redskins' defense has gotten more aggressive, capitalizing on his blitzing ability. According to Redskins Coach Norv Turner, Shade has "everything you want in a safety." It leapt off the videotape of his first four seasons in the NFL, played with the Cincinnati Bengals.
"We saw a guy that has the great desire to play every play as hard as he can play," Redskins defensive backs coach Tom Hayes said. "He has tremendous quickness for a safety with his feet, with good change of direction. The other thing that jumped out: He's a physical football player. He really hits people."
Better still, at 26 and with a contract that runs through 2002, Shade holds the promise of providing stability at a position where the Redskins have had seven starters the past seven years.
Redskins officials made their first inquiry about acquiring Shade when he was a restricted free agent, after his third season. It didn't work out, but Shade began following Turner's team, trying to picture how he would fit into its system. Last February, the Redskins made him their first free agent signee of the offseason, with a four-year, $10.4 million deal. He hopes it is his last move.
"I went into free agency thinking I wanted to go somewhere that I would want to be for the rest of my career," Shade said. "I feel like Washington is that place. I'm not one of those guys that likes change that much."
In Cincinnati, where he played with Wilkinson for three seasons, Shade had a chance to shine in the Bengals' system, which relied heavily on the blitz. Redskins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said during training camp that his players would be more aggressive this season, but that was slow in coming. Part of that, Shade suspects, was a result of the Redskins' potent offense.
"We started out against Dallas and we were winning that game, 35-14," he said. "Not too many teams blitz people when they're up like that."
In Week 4 against Carolina, the Redskins fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter after running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka scorched them for a touchdown run on a blitz that didn't work. Shade was coming off the corner and was a step late. Another Redskin, coming from the inside, didn't hit the right area, either.
"After that," Shade said, "that kind of took away from the blitz thing a little bit."
Turner plays down the fact that his defense is blitzing more lately. "We are more effective with our blitz, so it stands out more," Turner said. "Whatever you're doing--blitzing, playing zone or man[-to-man]--if you do it well, it does stand out a little more."
Shade, for one, thinks the extra pressure on the quarterback is paying off. "I feel like if you can get a hit on a quarterback early, often that guy is going to want to get rid of that ball quick," Shade said. "I've seen it happen. It's effective."
Last week against the Giants, Shade dropped quarterback Kent Graham for a seven-yard loss in the first quarter, swooping in from the right side to doom a drive that withered after three plays. That play worked, Shade said, because linebacker Shawn Barber did a masterful job selling the Giants on the ruse that Barber was the one they needed to block, drawing attention away from Shade.
When he's involved in a blitz, Shade said he pays careful attention to the quarterback's cadence, listening for clues in his snap count that tell him exactly when to time his move.
Sometimes, his eagerness gets the better of him. Sunday against the Giants, Graham dropped back to pass and was looking to his left. Shade thought the quarterback didn't see him. He lunged for Graham's arm in hopes of forcing a turnover. He came up empty, and Graham completed a 12-yard throw to wide receiver Ike Hilliard.
"I should have just gone ahead for the sack," Shade said. "The coaches told me that, and I knew that after the fact. But I want to make that big play; I want to help the team."
He did on New York's next possession, intercepting a pass meant for tight end Pete Mitchell. Shade credited Nolan with the perfect call in double-teaming Mitchell with himself and safety Matt Stevens. "The quarterback didn't see Matt, but Mitchell saw him, and I guess that's why he lost focus on the ball," Shade said. "The ball bounces off his hands, and I'm just there to get it."
Tackling has been a weakness for the Redskins in critical stretches this season. Players often have been fast enough to hit their man, but not determined enough to stop him. That's what happened in the fourth quarter against Philadelphia two weeks ago, and it likely cost the Redskins the victory. Shade's approach to tackling is a matter of heart more than technique.
"My college coaches [at Alabama] always said, 'Tackling is pretty much how bad you want to,' " Shade said. "That's my philosophy: It's how bad do you want to get a guy on the ground? You can do all the drills you want. But when it comes down to it, it's just how bad do you want to get a guy on the ground."
Redskins Notes: The Redskins and U.S. Marine Reserves will collect new, unwrapped toys to be distributed to needy children during the holidays through the Toys for Tots program at FedEx Field on Sunday. The Marines will collect toys from 10 a.m. through the first quarter. . . . The players who have been made inactive for Sunday's game are fullback Larry Bowie, defensive tackle Barron Tanner, wide receiver Derrius Thompson and tackle Kipp Vickers.
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Site: FedEx Field.
Radio: WJFK-FM-106.7, WBQB-FM-101.5, WPLC-FM-94.3, WKIK-FM-102.9, WAGE-1200, WNAV-1430, WFMD-930.
Line: Redskins by 10A.