How Will the Green Bay Packers Receivers Fare Against Richard Sherman?

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How Will the Green Bay Packers Receivers Fare Against Richard Sherman?
John Froschauer/Associated Press

On Thursday, Aaron Rodgers' Green Bay Packers and Richard Sherman's Seattle Seahawks will officially kick off the 2014 NFL season.

Seattle will host the game, as the reigning Super Bowl champion typically does. Because the Packers aren't a division rival and because they have been knocked out of the first round of their last two postseason campaigns by the San Francisco 49ers, the last time these two teams played a meaningful game was in 2012.

That Week 3 game is now regularly referred to as the Fail Mary game—the game that finally forced the NFL to end its lockout of its regular officials.

In that game, the Packers lost on a very controversial and incredibly absurd final play that saw the replacement officials credit the Seahawks with a touchdown reception that never really happened. Golden Tate was the benefactor, while the Packers players walked off the field in disgust before the extra point.

Had this game happened last season, it would likely be a motivator for the Packers and make this game more feisty. At this stage, the effect has likely dimmed.

Tate is now playing with the Detroit Lions, the Seahawks are coming off that dominant Super Bowl victory and the Packers have arguably been the biggest underachievers in the NFL over the past two seasons. This game doesn't need fabricated drama, there should be plenty of it naturally.

One player who never shies away from drama is Sherman.

Arguably the best cornerback in the NFL, Sherman is coming off two consecutive seasons of dominance. He made the biggest play of the Seahawks' season last year in the NFC Championship game and has become one of the most feared players in the whole league.

Intimidation is an aspect of Sherman's game, but it's very difficult to intimidate Rodgers.

The Packers quarterback is arguably the best player in the NFL (and using arguably there may even be bordering on an insult). His physical talent is exceptional and his performances on the field regularly remind onlookers of that.

If anyone has the ability to consistently complete passes against Sherman, it's Rodgers. His arm strength, touch, ball placement and anticipation allow him to consistently put the ball in places where the defender has no chance to get it no matter how good his coverage is.

The concern for the Packers when throwing at Sherman has more to do with the quality of their wide receivers.

If Sherman was wont to follow receivers around the field, he would undoubtedly attach himself to Jordy Nelson. Yet, because Sherman typically stays on the left side of the field, the Packers will be able to keep Nelson away from the defender if they choose to.

This means that Sherman won't only be asked to cover Nelson at times, but also Jarrett Boykin, who beat out rookie second-round pick Davante Adams for the third receiver spot and most likely tight end Andrew Quarless, even though rookie Richard Rodgers appears to be ahead of him on the depth chart.

Randall Cobb will also be on the field, but Cobb should be expected to stay in the slot.

 

Andrew Quarless

The intensity of regular-season games in the NFL are a step above the intensity of preseason games in the NFL. The intensity of regular-season games against the best teams in the league are a step above regular-season games against the worst teams.

When it comes to best teams in the NFL, it's hard to argue anyone over the Seahawks at this point in time. When it comes to playing with intensity, it's impossible to argue that anywhere else creates that atmosphere better than Seattle.

For that reason, it's hard to see the Packers relying too much on rookie tight end Rodgers. Instead, a more experienced player could be looked to, and that would lead them to Quarless, who became an important part of the Packers' passing attack last year after Jermichael Finley was lost to injury.

Because most of his games were played with Matt Flynn as the starting quarterback, Quarless' production was tempered. He had 32 receptions for 312 yards and two touchdowns in 10 starts and 16 total games. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he was targeted 47 times, though only 34 passes were deemed catchable.

Although he is a good athlete, Quarless is more of a reliable tight end than a mismatch weapon. Against Sherman, he would be forced to rely on his size to try and gain positioning on the ball because he wouldn't be quick enough to run routes away from him.

NFL.com

Sherman's size is one of his top traits, so Quarless can't realistically be expected to be effective against him.

 

Jarrett Boykin

Boykin is a well-rounded receiver.

NFL.com

He has good size, speed, quickness and hands, but none of his traits are special. He fits perfectly with the Packers offense as the third receiver, because he is never the focus of the opposition's coverage and shouldn't expect to see the defense's best opposing defensive back when facing teams that move their cornerbacks around the field.

Against most teams, Boykin will be good enough to produce good numbers and be a go-to guy in key situations.

Against Sherman, he would likely be erased. Because of his relatively lean frame and playing style, Boykin doesn't really have the ability to fight off Sherman's aggressive style of coverage. He is better suited to produce against defensive backs who attempt to mirror opponents rather than be physical.

While the NFL is putting an emphasis on penalizing holding, something more physical cornerbacks are more likely to do, the Seahawks were the only team not to be penalized by the end of the third week of the preseason.

Boykin's route running should allow him to be somewhat effective when he lines up against Sherman, but those will most likely be on shorter routes.

 

Jordy Nelson

The most important matchup in this game when the Packers have the ball will be Nelson against Sherman.

Running the ball against the Seahawks is the best way to make dents in the defense, but you also need to stay balanced with big plays in the passing game. If Nelson lines up against Byron Maxwell, the Seahawks will have no issue shading deep safety Earl Thomas to his side of the field.

Maxwell isn't a spectacular cornerback, but he can be effective in the Seahawks defense, and especially so when he is given more help from those around him.

Nelson's space will come if he lines up against Sherman. The Seahawks don't typically like to alter their approach. They want to stay in their 4-3 base look and play as much Cover 3 as possible. By relying on Thomas' range, they can do this and not cheat to one side of the field or be forced to rely on their pass rush if the opposing team's No. 1 receiver is lined up across from Sherman.

Why would the Packers line Nelson up against Sherman in that situation? If they don't, they will either be forced to throw into tighter windows or use a lesser receiving talent against arguably the most dangerous defensive back in the NFL.

Nelson was on the field for the Packers when they last played in Seattle.

On that occasion, he didn't exclusively play against Sherman or avoid him. That team could boast James Jones, Greg Jennings and Finley, so the Packers were more threatening at the receiver spots as a whole. As such, they rotated each of their receivers to different spots on the field.

Nelson spent most of his time working against Sherman in the first half. He didn't see a target against the defensive back, so obviously he didn't record a reception against him, either.

The duo had nine plays in man coverage against each other where Nelson had enough time to run his route. On those nine plays, Sherman successfully covered Nelson seven times. That may seem like a tiny success rate for Nelson, but it's relatively large for receivers working against Sherman.

Importantly, two of Nelson's successful routes were comeback routes down the sideline.

Richard Sherman's Success v Specific Routes in 2013
No Route Success Rate in Coverage
1 Sideline 97%
2 Slant 85%
3 Curl 79%
4 Out 79%
5 Seam 71%
6 Post 70%
7 Crossing 67%
8 Comeback 64%
9 Double Move 60%
10 In 55%

Pre Snap Reads

Sherman dominates the sideline, but as the above table shows, one of the routes he struggles most with is the comeback. Nelson excels on comeback routes because he is a deep threat with the precision in his routes to create separation. Furthermore, he has outstanding ball skills when working the side line.

Rodgers and Nelson have proved repeatedly that they can effortlessly hook up on comeback routes and back-shoulder throws.

NFL.com
NFL.com
NFL.com

These are dangerous passes to attempt because the defensive back can come away with an easy interception if the timing or the pass is off the mark. When the throw is executed properly, though, this type of play generally makes it irrelevant who is covering the receiver.

Most quarterback-receiver tandems don't have the ability to consistently make these kinds of plays because it requires rare ability from both players involved.

NFL.com

Not only does Rodgers have to perfectly time a perfectly flighted and perfectly accurate pass, Nelson has to adjust to the football and make a very difficult reception. Therefore, while you're taking the defender out of the play, you're still not making it easy for the receiver.

On Nelson's two back-shoulder routes against Sherman when they last met, he wasn't targeted, but James Jones was successful in a similar situation.

How the Packers approach this game will be fascinating. Different teams have tried different approaches to get a win in Seattle over the last two seasons. Only the Arizona Cardinals were successful in their attempt, but they relied on a huge amount of luck to get their victory.

At the very least, the Packers have the physical talent to compete with the Seahawks. Nelson is one of the very best receivers in the NFL, and his specific traits should allow him to match up effectively against Sherman.

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