New Orleans Saints safety Darren Sharper has learned to trust his eyes

By John DeShazier, The Times-Picayune

September 22, 2009, 5:00AM

He tells himself to trust his eyes, to believe what he sees. Because there just isn’t much New Orleans Saints safety Darren Sharper hasn’t seen in his 12-plus seasons and 185 NFL games as a safety.

What he sees often allows him to be a master pilferer. Sometimes it even allows him to take from teammates.

“When he got the interception — really, that was Roman’s guy,” rookie cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said through a smile, referring to Sharper’s fourth-quarter interception Sunday against Philadelphia. Sharper returned the ball 97 yards for a touchdown and the final points in a 48-22 win.

Apparently Sharper broke assignment and eased into territory that was to be handled by fellow safety Roman Harper. Sharper stepped in front of an Eagles receiver and grabbed his third interception in the Saints’ two games.

“He didn’t even cover his own man, but he saw something and he went and stole it,” Jenkins said.

“I don’t know if it was stealing,” Sharper said. “Maybe, (it was) being a little lazy. I didn’t really want to switch sides with (Harper), so I just said I’m going to stay on my side.

“Nah, I just saw that they were running the same route over there, and I said, ‘OK, enough’s enough.’ We were just in a coverage that allowed me to be aggressive, so I just took advantage of that.”

Trust your eyes folks. Believe what you see. Because what we’ve seen so far is the kind of ball hawk the Saints have lacked — a guy who can get to the ball, and better, can do something once he gets there.

It isn’t for nothing that Sharper is the NFL’s active leader with 57 career interceptions, or that the Saints signed him as an unrestricted free agent.

Maybe the Vikings didn’t think he had much if anything left after he had just one interception last season. And maybe the Saints have, so far, gotten a better return on their investment than they envisioned.

Whatever is the case, what matters most is Sharper has emerged as the leader of secondary that needed direction and playmakers. Jason David led the Saints with five interceptions last season, and the team finished with 15. Sharper and his teammates already have six.

“It’s awesome,” said quarterback Drew Brees, who knows awesome when he sees it, especially if a mirror is nearby. He has tied the NFL record with nine touchdowns in the first two games.

“It’s like the quarterback of the defense,” Brees said. “He has played long enough to know that, throughout the course of the game, he’s kind of taking it all in, reading the route concepts, understanding, ‘Hey, this is their game plan, this is what they’re going to try to do.’ ‘Hey, I’ve seen this enough times that I know when I can pick and choose my times to guess.’

“The majority of times, veteran guys like that guess right, and when they do they end up making a big play.”

Sharper picked Lions quarterback Matt Stafford twice in the season opener, correctly figuring the rookie would go to receiver Calvin Johnson and staying over the top of Johnson often enough to swipe a couple.

And again, he let his instincts take over against Philly, and took advantage of a young quarterback (Kevin Kolb) making his first NFL start. Kolb also carried the disadvantage of having to pass because the Saints had built a formidable lead.

“A lot of it comes from film study and just being able to look at certain formations and anticipate what the receiver and the quarterback are going to do,” Sharper said. “And then just trusting your instincts and going after it.

“A lot of times people will see things, but they don’t trust it, and they don’t go and attack the ball. And that’s part of the reason I’ve been able to get my hands on the ball. And the fact of us being up by points, teams are going to have to throw the ball. So there are going to be more opportunities. So a lot of different factors play into it.”

Not that it’s as easy as Sharper makes it sound.

“It’s a good and a bad thing, because you can try to learn from him, but you can’t really try to duplicate what he’s doing,” Jenkins said. “Because he knows (what he’s seeing).

“If I try to do something like that — I don’t really quite know what he knows — so if I try to go freestyle or something like that, it might turn into a big play.

“But you learn a lot from him. You try to pick his mind and see what kind of things he sees, because a lot of times he vacates his zone and makes a play in somebody else’s zone. Something triggered him to do that. Those are the things that help us out a lot. He shows us how to take chances, but make them smart chances.”

The smartest chance being to trust their eyes, to believe what they see.

“The preparation you have for the game, there are going to be certain things that you’ll see, certain tendencies that you can take advantage of,” Sharper said. “And once the game comes, you have to kind of always be thinking, and anticipate what they’re going to do. And if you see something, don’t be scared. Just go ahead and go get it.”

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