Super Bowl Profile: Richard Sherman
Richard Sherman has turned himself into one of the stories of the Super Bowl. Had he simply deflected the final pass of the NFC Championship game into the waiting arms of Malcolm Smith to send the Seahawks to the Super Bowl he would still be a story, but it would be small column inches as a minor sub-plot of the big game. Instead the now infamous rant after that play has catapulted him front and center. The self-proclaimed ‘best corner in the game’ is going to have a big role to play in trying to slow down the runaway train that is the Denver Broncos offense led by Peyton Manning.
I’m not sure that Sherman has been the best corner in the league this season. In fact, over the sixteen-game regular season I’m fairly certain he wasn’t, but he has a chance to change that with his third game of the post-season. Since the regular season ended Sherman has been in coverage for 74 snaps and allowed no receptions.
Zero. Zip. Nada. Nothing.
He has been flagged for holding against the 49ers, but that play aside he has only been targeted twice over those 74 snaps. Sherman has been the very definition of shutdown since the lights went on and things got real.
If he maintains that kind of performance in the Super Bowl against Peyton Manning’s Broncos, then I don’t think you can argue too strongly that he wasn’t the best corner in football in 2013. Other guys might have performed better over 16-games, but Sherman turned it on when the pressure got ratcheted up, and came good on the biggest stage possible.
Sherman vs Revis
Sherman is an interesting player to study because he doesn’t do everything that made Darrelle Revis into Revis Island. Revis tracked a team’s best receiver, forcing an offense to either abandon their biggest weapon in the passing game, or throw at him, putting the ball in jeopardy even though they knew it was risky. He earned his nickname because the Jets could man him up with a single receiver and forget about him, using the other ten guys on defense to defend the rest of the field however they felt worked best on that particular play.
By comparison Sherman does relatively little. He doesn’t track receivers (he has done in the past, but very rarely – Stevie Johnson in 2012 an example), and the Seahawks don’t hinge their defense on the island of coverage that Sherman provides in the way the Jets did with Revis.
The Seahawks essentially just line Sherman up at left cornerback in their secondary of talented players across the board and play ball. If a team wants to free up their best receiver from the attentions of Sherman, they can just move him across the field. You can avoid Sherman and still throw at your favorite target, something that wasn’t possible with Revis in that Jets scheme, and teams are doing so.
This season Sherman was the least targeted corner in football. Though he was thrown at 58 times, that works out at 9.5 snaps in coverage per target, some way clear of the next best mark (Revis at 8.8, himself some way clear of Patrick Peterson and Keenan Lewis in third). I’m not saying this is a failing of Sherman – he’s not avoiding tracking receivers because he can’t do it – but the Seahawks simply don’t need him to be that guy.
The drop-off from Revis to the rest of the Jets coverage unit was so large that they needed him to take away that top guy and allow them to get creative stopping everything else. If teams go away from Sherman they’re throwing at Byron Maxwell, whose numbers match Sherman’s almost exactly since he came into the lineup. If they want to avoid the corners they’re rolling the dice with some huge-hitting and rangy safeties in the middle. They’re all aggressive, they’re all tough to beat, they’re all athletic. There is no easy out in that Seattle D, so why ask one player to go above and beyond the call?
Sherman on Sunday
When Sherman is thrown at though there is nobody tougher to beat. He is occasionally beaten when there is a coverage breakdown or by being lulled to sleep (see Roddy White in the playoffs a year ago), but when his head is in the game and he is going toe to toe with somebody they rarely win.
He has allowed more than five catches in a game just once in his career, and given up 100+ receiving yards just twice, with neither coming since Week 4 of 2012. This season he has allowed more than three catches just once and is averaging just 23.4 receiving yards given up per game. If you take the 73-yard touchdown from T.Y Hilton away from his numbers (the play was a blown coverage with Sherman and Earl Thomas not getting on the same page pre-snap) he has allowed an average of just 19.3 receiving yards per game.
Sherman is one of the league’s most physical corners, but like Revis he uses that physicality to play to his strengths in coverage. As that final play against the 49ers also showed, he has elite coverage skills with the ball in the air. He makes receivers earn the space they find when running routes. Way back in the preseason Demaryius Thomas beat him for a 23-yard gain down the right sideline, but watching the play shows how hard it is to beat Sherman. Thomas needed to make three moves to get any kind of separation, Sherman had the first two covered like a blanket.
It would be easy to try and focus on Sherman vs Thomas as one of the matchups of the game, but it’s highly unlikely Sherman will track any Denver receiver and Thomas spends the majority of his time on the other side of the field, so the chances of a game-long encounter are slim. Denver has a myriad of weapons in the receiving game anyway, so the impact on any one of them is missing the point. Sherman is the best player in a secondary that is going to have a titanic battle on its hands against the league’s most potent offense.
When you look past all of the brash trash-talk you see a player who knows exactly what he is doing. Sherman studies the game and makes plays as much because of what he knows than because of his physical gifts. He is smart enough to be able to bait quarterbacks into making throws he wants them to make.
The Super Bowl matchup of interest isn’t Sherman vs. Demaryius Thomas, it’s Sherman vs. Manning. Can Sherman coax Manning into a poor decision, and can he maintain his streak in the post-season? If he can then I for one won’t argue with him saying he was the best corner in the game in 2013, but until that time it’s still too soon to dethrone Darrelle Revis.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam