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Sharper's Favre familiarity could boost Saints
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METAIRIE, La.Twelve seasons have passed since one of the NFL’s best players last reached a Super Bowl.
And I’m not just talking about Brett Favre.
New Orleans safety Darren Sharper was a rookie member of the 1997 Green Bay Packers squad that Favre quarterbacked to Super Bowl XXXII. Although Green Bay lost to Denver, Sharper thought he’d have plenty of other chances to earn a championship ring.
He was wrong. Sharper will be playing in only the second conference title game of his 13-year career Sunday when the Saints host the Favre-led Vikings (6 p.m. ET, FOX).
“As a rookie going to the Super Bowl in your first year playing on a good team with a quarterback like Brett, you expect to be back each and every year,” Sharper said Thursday at Saints headquarters. “But that lets you know how tough it is. It really makes you cherish the moments now.”
It also makes Favre and Sharper realize the magnitude of Sunday’s game. This could be the last good shot either veteran has at a Super Bowl appearance — and each will be trying to keep the other from getting there.
No safety is better prepared to defense Favre than Sharper. First, the two were Packers teammates from 1997 to 2004. Sharper then left for Minnesota, where he played Favre twice a year for the next three seasons. Sharper, who signed with New Orleans in the 2009 offseason, also has intricate knowledge of Minnesota’s offensive tendencies from the time he spent there.
“He’s definitely the guy we’re going to go to to try to get the tips on their offense,” Saints middle linebacker Jon Vilma said. “Whatever little edge you can get, that can make the difference in the game.”
Sharper has made a huge difference in the Saints’ secondary. He tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with nine — scoring on three of them — and set a single-season return record of 376 yards in the process.
“The thought from people when you play a guy like Sharp is that you can trick him and get big plays,” Favre said earlier this week. “In all honesty, you really don’t see that this year. Part of it is their (pass) rush and things like that. There’s not a whole lot of time to throw. There’ve been a couple opportunities where people have had some shots, but he’s playing very sound.
“That’s not to say that we can’t make plays, but I think all the factors have to be in line. You have to protect well, have the right play call, formation things and all that stuff because he can decipher plays pretty quickly.”
When Sharper entered the 2009 offseason at age 33, some teams thought he was slowing down. The Vikings didn’t make a serious effort to sign him because 2008 second-round draft pick Tyrell Johnson was waiting in the wings. As other safeties like Brian Dawkins and Gibril Wilson landed big-money deals, Sharper didn’t join the Saints until several weeks after the free-agent signing period began. Sharper commanded a modest one-year, $1.7 million contract, making him one of the NFL’s biggest bargains as he earned his fifth Pro Bowl berth.
Sharper said he had other options but didn’t “want to go somewhere to have a wasted year” with teams he considered non-playoff contenders. Sharper also was a perfect fit as the sage center fielder-like safety in the aggressive scheme being installed by new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
“The main thing when people talk about changing the culture of our defense was just becoming a playmaking defense — something I’ve done in the past and I kind of brought here,” said Sharper, who ranks sixth on the NFL’s all-time interception list with 63. “Our turnover numbers have increased. That is something I’ve carried with me throughout my career with whatever defense I’ve been a part of.”
Sharper intercepted Favre in a 2006 game, but he also realizes No. 4 is a wiser quarterback four years later. Favre has thrown only seven interceptions all season to go along with 37 touchdowns, including four in last Sunday’s 34-3 rout of Dallas.
“The thing that has allowed him to be as good with the football and not turn it over is the fact they have so many good weapons around him,” Sharper said. “Guys are getting open, and Brett’s accurate enough that he’s going to find ways to get you the football. With the running attack they have, a lot of his reads are defined pretty early. And he’s just playing at a high level.
“He doesn’t look like he’s slowing down. His arm strength hasn’t slowed down at all. He’s still making all the throws and is mobile in the pocket. I haven’t seen him scramble as much or dive over people like when I was with him in Green Bay, but I’m not doing those things either.”
Sharper then smiled. Unfortunately for two longtime friends, that’s something only one of them will be doing after Sunday’s matchup.
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