Sapp carving out a niche

OWINGS MILLS -- Bart Scott likes to call Gerome Sapp an honorary linebacker, a nod to the big safety's strength, size and hitting ability. The Baltimore Ravens' Pro Bowl linebacker has even been teasing Sapp about being utilized so heavily on blitzes. "I'm starting to get jealous," Scott quipped. "He's getting his name called a lot."

Sapp has another description for his growing role in substitution packages for the NFL's reigning top-ranked defense: "I'm the X-factor."

In Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan's intricate schemes, the X is a roving safety who operates close to the line of scrimmage and is often called upon as an enforcer in run support and used to harass quarterbacks.

It's a role that appears to be tailor-made for Sapp, a former Notre Dame standout entering his fifth NFL season. Through two preseason games, he leads Baltimore with a pair of sacks, including a hit on hefty New York Giants quarterback Jared Lorenzen during a 13-12 loss Sunday night at M&T Bank Stadium.

"I don't know about being an honorary linebacker," said Sapp, who's listed at 6-foot-1, 216 pounds. "I'm not quite that big."

Sapp is large for a safety, though, and he's unusually fast for a player who's essentially acting as a glorified outside linebacker.

"I'm more of that hybrid type of player," said Sapp, who was re-signed by Baltimore to a one-year, $595,000 contract this spring. "I'm kind of in between safety and linebacker. It's fun getting to do so many different things. My role is kind of expanded more on third downs and second-and-long.

"We're trying to get the best matchups on the field, and Rex does a good job of putting us in the right spots to be successful. My role has expanded some and, hopefully, a lot more later on."

A year ago, Sapp rejoined the Ravens after being acquired in a trade from the Indianapolis Colts. After being edged out in a competition for the strong safety job by Dawan Landry during training camp, he played in 15 games and started once while primarily working on special teams.

Sapp wound up registering 12 tackles, one forced fumble and two pass deflections along with 10 special-teams tackles.

With All-Pro linebacker Adalius Thomas' free agent defection to the New England Patriots, the subtraction of his versatility and athleticism has led to increased roles for Sapp and others, including Scott, in the nickel and dime packages.

"I had a role last year, but we really didn't know what to do with it," said Sapp, who has 71 career special-teams tackles. "It literally took a lot of the season to define that role. With A.D. leaving, it freed up a lot of spots for other guys because A.D. could so much. We all look forward to that playing time.

"I'll still come in as a dime back, but they also want to use me in different ways to confuse the offense and not let them know whether I'm coming or going. Rex loves to use speed in the 3-4, so he's going to put me on the field and essentially use me in place of a linebacker. We have a speed advantage with three safeties, which gives us a lot of versatility."

The Texas native was drafted by Baltimore in 2003 in the sixth round after posting155 career tackles, three fumble recoveries and five interceptions for the Fighting Irish.

As a rookie, Sapp played in 14 games and had 17 special-teams tackles, but was cut the following year in a controversial move where veteran Corey Fuller was retained instead at the urging of Ray Lewis and Deion Sanders.

Now that he's back in the Ravens' fold, Sapp is looking to create a niche beyond being a special-teams standout.

"Just overall, I want to show them that I'm a hell of a competitor," Sapp said. "That word gets thrown around in this league a lot, but I am. When I get on the field, I like to make a statement."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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