With Darrelle Revis down for the year injured, several young players have a chance to grab the mantle of the league’s best corner, at least for a season, by filling that vacuum. Not many have the ability to challenge for that crown, especially with a healthy Revis back on the football field, but one of the few that does is Seattle CB Richard Sherman.
Since somehow slipping down the draft all the way to the 5th round Sherman has been on a mission to prove the talent evaluators slipped up. Given his coverage numbers and grades since taking the field for the Seahawks as a rookie, he has already succeeded in that, and then some. He earned ridiculous coverage grades in his first year, but was penalized a lot, and given such a short body of work we wanted to take a look at him this year to see if it was nothing more than a fantastic run. This season he has kicked on from that rookie level, cut out the flags that dogged him last year, and right now is playing as well as any corner in football.
He currently sits 3rd overall in our corner rankings and second only to Charles Tillman in coverage grade. Despite being thrown at 54 times this season he has allowed only 26 receptions (48.1%) and opposing passers have a rating of just 46.1 when throwing at him. Against the Jets he was targeted four times and allowed nothing at all. In fact he picked off one of those passes and batted another two balls away.
So let’s take a look at his game.
Zone Coverage – Baiting Sanchez – New York Jets @ Seattle | 2nd Q, 10:55
With a tied game Richard Sherman intercepts Mark Sanchez on 3rd and goal from the Seattle six yard line to swing momentum in the game.
I spoke to Sherman after this game and though he told me he prefers man coverage on an island, enjoying that challenge, this play shows how adept he can be in zone coverage as well. The Jets line up in the gun with a bunch to the right of the formation. Bunches usually forces teams that use a lot of man coverage out of that and into some form of zone because of the threat of crossing receivers setting pick plays for the defenders, so Seattle counters with a simple Cover 2 look.
In Cover 2 the cornerbacks have flat responsibility while the two safeties cover over the top, dividing the field between them. Down by the goal line things are further condensed, giving the corners a very clearly defined area of responsibility.
“At the snap I recognized they were attempting to run a condensed version of double post with a flat route.” Sherman told me. Seattle plays an aggressive form of zone coverage so Sherman plays tight to the post before passing it off to Kam Chancellor, the safety on that side of the field, before coming off towards the flat route run by Jets TE Dustin Keller. “I would have come off to it earlier but Sanchez was looking the other way.”
At this point Sherman is just reading the quarterback’s eyes, well aware of the route he needs to cover, but also keeping position enough so that the route looks open when the quarterback eventually progressed through his reads enough to find it. “I baited him into throwing it. Once I came off on the flat route I began getting depth so that there would appear to be a throwing window to the flat”.
By getting depth Sherman is buying himself room while still covering the route. He is creating the illusion of space from the quarterback’s perspective knowing that as soon as the ball is in the air he will be able to break down in front of it and undercut the route. “Once I saw Sanchez preparing to throw, I put a firm foot in the ground and broke on it”.
This is some extremely sophisticated stuff from Sherman and shows an awareness and feel for coverage that a player of his years shouldn’t yet have. He wasn’t just sitting in a zone and then trying to beat the receiver to the ball, he was playing with angles knowing that by sitting off but gaining depth on the route, he would be in perfect position to break on it and intercept it while also actively encouraging the throw to be made.
Man Coverage – Knowledge and Reads – New York Jets @ Seattle | 2nd Q, 7:55
On 3rd and 8 from midfield with the game still tied, Sherman breaks on a ball in man coverage to break it up and almost get a second interception.
This play shows off the best of Sherman and the level of nuance in his play already despite his relatively short time in the league. The Seahawks run a lot of press-man coverage, and it’s what Sherman does best. This is the play that will draw comparisons to Darrelle Revis in more ways than one. The Jets are facing 3rd and 8 at midfield, and Sherman is on an island against speedy receiver Clyde Gates to the right of the formation.
The receiver runs his release right into Sherman, shoving back to break the jam and releasing to the outside down the sideline. Standard technique from the corner in this scenario is to get tight to the receiver, not let him run past him down the sideline and then play back inside to the football, but Sherman knows better than that.
On 3rd and 8 he knows that the chances are Gates is just going to break his pattern off as soon as he reaches the first down marker, so he actually plays to be in position once the receiver makes his break, not to be in position for the deep ball over the top. He has an exceptional ability to read a receiver’s body language, and instead of busting a gut to maintain good position down field, he is actually slowing up to let him run by him so he can cut underneath when Gates makes his break.
When I asked Sherman how he was able to read this he said “first of all I try to study as much film as I can to familiarize myself with the opponents offense but more specifically their tendencies (i.e. favorite route concepts, 3rd down plays by down and distance, red zone plays, and splits of WRs on these plays) so that I am able to play fast on game day”. Check the bolded section (my bolding), Sherman likely knew what the Jets would be running from studying them on tape, he simply didn’t buy the deep threat on the route.
“I learned a lot about splits and route combos playing offense so even if I have no clue what play is coming at the snap I can diagnose post snap and still play fast. Every team has plays they like to run on 3rd down.”
The art of man coverage is an extremely tough one to master, and Revis is the yardstick by which all cover corners should be measured. Being able to read a receiver’s body language and adjust when he adjusts is a very difficult skill to acquire. Sherman has this skill, but this is an extra layer of brilliance that can take him to the very top. If he can process all of the tape he grinds during the week and the knowledge he acquired from playing receiver in college into the likely route he is going to be facing, he has an added advantage in the pattern, because he knows what is coming.
On this play it allowed him to discount the possibility that the Jets would try and hit him over the top and cheat towards covering the stop that they ended up running. He put himself in position to actually beat the receiver to the ball and almost make his second interception of the day.
Plays like this are what makes Sherman arguably the league’s toughest cover corner right now.
The Blitz – Taking Down the Quarterback – New York Jets @ Seattle | 4th Q, 11:51
On 1st and 10 Sherman seals the victory, sacking and forcing a fumble from Mark Sanchez to give the Seahawks the ball with a two score lead.
Sherman isn’t just about coverage ability however. At 6’3 he has the kind of size to be a major factor in the run game and in this instance, on the blitz. Seattle is again in zone, and when Keller motions away from his side of the line, Sherman has free reign to rush the passer unblocked off the edge. The running back doesn’t seem to even see the threat as he runs straight through the line up the middle where no blitzers are coming to be ready for a dump off pass, but Sherman’s free run means he meets Sanchez at the top of his drop before Lex Hilliard can even turn to present himself for the dump off option.
At 6’2 and 225lbs, Sanchez isn’t a small man, and could shake the tackles of smaller corners, but despite pulling a good move just before Sherman arrives, the big corner is able to haul him down with his arms and cause the ball to come spilling loose in the process.
The closing speed shown by Sherman on this play was impressive, but the most impressive part was his ability to finish the play, keeping a firm grip of Sanchez and riding him to the ground like a pass rusher careening around the edge for a sack. This play put a nail in the coffin of the Jets’ attempted comeback and effectively sealed the victory for the Seahawks.
Sunday was one of the best games of Sherman’s young career, and was about as perfect a game as a corner can have without scoring himself. Despite being thrown at four times he didn’t allow a single catch, while intercepting one, almost intercepting another, and breaking up one final pass that wasn’t even thrown into his coverage.
Darrelle Revis is out of the equation for the remainder of the 2012 season, and right now there is no corner covering better than Richard Sherman. Given his age and meteoric rise, he now has a legitimate shot at joining Revis as the league’s only true shutdown corners.
Revis Island may be about to become an archipelago, flanked by Sherman Island in a sea from which there is no escape for receivers.