Some people say shutdown cornerbacks don’t exist anymore. Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman would beg to differ. He has made the claim on numerous occasions that he is the NFL’s best cornerback.
Since Sherman entered the league in 2011, he has the most interceptions (20) and passes defended (61). Furthermore, he has the best quarterback rating against of any defensive back. In 48 regular-season games, opposing quarterbacks have amassed a 39.4 quarterback rating when throwing into his coverage area.
Nonetheless, the two-time All-Pro selection still has his fair share of critics. A number of pundits, from various media outlets, have irresponsibly informed the masses that Sherman has had a great deal of success in the NFL because he holds on nearly every play.
To say that he holds on nearly every play is erroneous. Sure, there are times when Sherman holds opposing pass-catchers, but what defensive back doesn’t? Based on the number (two) of holding penalties called against the big-bodied corner, 19 other corners were flagged for more holding penalties than he was in 2013, via NFLPenalties.com.
Yet, statistics are hardly the end-all, be-all. Statistics only tell a fraction of the story. The same goes for Sherman’s claim as the NFL’s best corner. His ungodly numbers have sparked immense debate, yet there’s only one way to find out if the trash-talking corner really is the league’s best at his position. Let’s go to the tape and analyze his skill set.
How many times have you heard the phrase, "That's why he's a cornerback: He has no hands.” It seems like announcers regularly recite that line when a cornerback drops a likely interception. Yet, that’s not the case when it comes to Sherman.
The former collegiate wide receiver is one of the most sure-handed defensive backs in the game. He has a knack for making opposing quarterbacks pay. The last thing any signal-caller wants to do is toss an underthrown ball into Sherman’s coverage area. Odds are the pass will get picked because he has a tendency to play the ball better than the wideout he is covering.
As the play started to unfold, it was evident that Nicks tried to beat Sherman down the right sideline on a “9” route. The lengthy corner did a good job of opening his hips and forcing the receiver to the sideline. This is exactly what a cornerback is supposed to do in press-man coverage when he’s defending the fade route.
Also notice how Sherman kept his eye level up and watched Nicks’ head during the first part of the play.
This was extremely important. Why? Because as soon as Nicks turned back to look for the ball, Sherman got his head turned around and located the ball as well.
By having good position on the play and locating the ball, Sherman set himself up for success. Now all he had to do was climb the ladder and outjump Nicks. Lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened. He timed the ball perfectly and snagged the ball at its highest point.
Yes, Sherman made the play look easy. That’s what he does. However, not every cornerback in the NFL would have played the ball that well and picked it off. He is truly special when it comes to taking the ball away. He has great control over his body, he judges the ball well and has an incredible vertical leap.
Again, Sherman’s ability to anticipate routes goes back to his days as a wide receiver. As good as he is at playing the ball, he may be even better at understanding route concepts and reading an opposing pass-catcher's next move.
Based on Sherman’s study techniques, this should come as no surprise.
“Tape is like my second hobby because it makes the game easier,” Sherman said in a video on Seahawks.com. “I feel like I’m a decent athlete, but my tape study and meticulous attention to detail is what makes me a good ball player.”
He’s right: His game-changing interception against the Houston Texans, Week 4, fully supports his claim.
With less than three minutes left to go in the Texans game, the Seahawks needed a third-down stop and a touchdown in the worst way. They figured if they could get a stop and force a punt, quarterback Russell Wilson would lead one of his patented late-game scoring drives.
Coincidentally enough, coordinator Dan Quinn’s defense got more than a stop on the crucial third-down play. They got a pick-six from Sherman, which ultimately changed the landscape of the game.
But how did the interception happen? That’s the million-dollar question.
First and foremost, the blitz off the left edge put pressure on quarterback Matt Schaub. Then, Sherman proved to be in the right place at the right time.
Schaub knew he had to unload the ball; he didn’t want to get sacked. Yet, the problem was Sherman only had one route to read on his quadrant of the field. And that route was a four-yard “3” route.
This, in turn, meant he could sit back and watch the quarterback’s eyes since he was in zone coverage.
Once Sherman saw tight end Owen Daniels cut off his route at the first-down marker, he broke on the play-action pass, and the rest was history.
In all likelihood, he saw that pass coming from a mile away. Daniels is arguably one of Schaub’s favorite targets, and the route the tight end ran is a common one out of play action that shows up on film time after time.
Despite being 6’3” and 195 pounds, there was some concern coming out of college that Sherman would have trouble tackling oversized receivers and running backs. The concern was warranted based on his wiry frame, but the worrisome attitude from scouts and front office executives quickly vanished after his rookie campaign.
In 786 defensive snaps, Sherman missed four measly tackles his rookie season. Of the cornerbacks who played at least 50 percent of their respective teams’ defensive snaps, his four missed tackles was the fourth-best mark in the league, according to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
In 2012, Sherman missed two more tackles than he did in 2011, yet his overall numbers, on a per-snap basis, were very comparable. As far as 2013 goes, he missed seven tackles, which proved to be a higher figure than his figures from 2011 and 2012. Then again, his defensive snap count increased for the third straight season, so the missed-tackle ratio, on a per-snap basis, balanced out.
Even though the highlight above is one of Sherman’s more memorable hits, his tackling technique is comprehensive week in and week out.
He does a phenomenal job of staying low and staying square. He also makes sure to keep his head up at all times, he hits with his shoulder pads and not his helmet, he runs through his opponent and he makes sure to wrap up at the end.
It just goes to show that even the leanest of cornerbacks can be good tacklers. You don’t have to weigh over 200 pounds and be the most well-built specimen. All you have to do is practice the proper skills and execute on game day.
I know what you’re thinking: Why would one of the subheadlines be labeled “Enticement?”
Well, it’s simple. Sherman’s most profound quality on the field is his ability to bait quarterbacks into making throws they don’t wan’t to make.
Sherman acknowledged this notion in a video on Seahawks.com: “The best corners get picks. And they get picks because they bait quarterbacks into throwing to their side.”
One of the best examples of Sherman baiting a quarterback into making a throw was when he drew St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford into throwing a damaging interception that ended the team’s season in 2012.
On this particular play, the Rams offense deployed three wide receivers to the right side of the formation. Chris Givens was lined up closest to the sideline at right wide receiver, Austin Pettis was in the slot next to Givens and Danny Amendola was in the slot next to Pettis.
All three wideouts were running vertical routes. In defense of the play, the Seahawks were in a zone-coverage look out of the 3-2-6. Strong safety Kam Chancellor protected the middle of the field, slot cornerback Marcus Trufant guarded against underneath routes in the flat and Sherman patrolled the end zone.
As you can see, Sherman made a terrific play. While the Pro Bowl corner was reading Bradford’s eyes, he made it a point to stay close to Givens down the sideline. By doing so, he didn’t give away his true intentions on the play.
Then, as soon as Pettis called for the ball, Bradford set his feet and Sherman started to drift over towards the slot receiver. Once he started to drift, he picked up speed and coincidentally enough picked the ball off by undercutting Pettis’ route.
Sherman may have made the sequence of events look easy, yet there wasn’t anything easy about the play. To successfully bait a quarterback into making a throw he doesn’t want to make, a cornerback's timing, anticipation and closing speed have to be top-notch.
Fortunately for head coach Pete Carroll and the Seahawks, almost every aspect of Sherman’s game is top-notch. His weaknesses are far and few between.
Based on the in-depth analytics we looked at and the study of the game tape, it’s evident that Sherman is the best cornerback in the NFL. Obviously, there are cornerbacks who are on his level talent-wise (Darrelle Revis, Brent Grimes and Brandon Boykin), yet no one plays with the same level of consistency.
Whether it’s Week 1 or Week 17, Sherman’s intensity level is always cranked up. Moreover, he treats every play like it’s his last since he wants to be the best player to ever play the game.
Here’s what he told Michael Silver of Yahoo Sports in Dec., 2012: "I want to be the best, period. A lot of people don't think it's possible, because how could a fifth-rounder be the best of all time? But that's what I want to be. Where you get drafted is such a big deal in the league, respect-wise, and that's why it still frustrates me."
At 25 years of age, one would have to think Sherman’s career will end up being prolific. Yet, he has some work to do if he wants to be the best of all time. He not only has to be the best player at his position, he has to win Super Bowl rings and set numerous records.
The good news is he has the opportunity to add to his legacy this coming Sunday by balling out in Super Bowl XLVIII against future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning.
Chances are he takes full advantage of the opportunity and puts together the best game of his career. That’s exactly how the best cornerback in the NFL operates. He continuously steps up when his team needs him to the most.