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Aaron Rodgers Smart to Avoid Richard Sherman; Success Depends on Execution

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2015

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Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers will face the most intimidating cornerback in the NFL this Sunday, Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks.

When the Seahawks and Packers last faced off in Week 1, Rodgers deliberately avoided Sherman for all four quarters of the game. The Packers specifically game-planned to not throw the ball his way, often moving their third-best receiver to his side of the field.

Sherman's talent level is so high that this strategy wasn't heavily criticized, and rightfully so.

Over the first four years of his career, Sherman has accumulated 24 interceptions and 65 pass deflections. If we accept Pro Football Focus' target numbers as accurate (subscription required), that means Sherman intercepts a pass once every 12 targets and touches the football once every 4.5 targets.

Last week against Carolina, Sherman caught his first postseason interception and dropped another. His pick came on a deep sideline pass, the type of throw that teams should actively avoid attempting against Sherman. In 2013, the cornerback successfully covered 97 percent of sideline routes, including that infamous Michael Crabtree play against the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.

Teams have had more success throwing at Sherman by running routes that are better suited to exploit Cover 3.

Back in Week 2 of the regular season, the San Diego Chargers completed a number of passes on Sherman by attacking him in specific ways. They didn't create big plays downfield, but they got first downs.

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In the Seahawks' Cover 3, Sherman is going to aggressively prioritize the deep third of the defense while the outside linebacker to his side of the field drops underneath in the flat. When executed properly, this means that the offense most likely has to throw the ball into tight windows to be successful.

The yellow areas of the above image are where the tight windows are expected to exist.

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To begin this play, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers keeps his eyes on safety Earl Thomas over the middle. Not only does this hold Thomas in place, but it also slows down the outside linebacker to Sherman's side as he drops into his zone.

Keenan Allen is the receiver working against Sherman. He opens his route by running down the sideline. Sherman runs with him before getting on top of his inside shoulder and turning around to look back at the quarterback.

This is the point when Allen turns to run an outside-breaking curl route.

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Rivers throws a perfectly timed, flat, high-velocity pass to get the ball to Allen in space. Sherman is a few steps behind him while the underneath linebacker is in pursuit underneath. This window was tight, and it wasn't open for long.

Allen got a first down, but he still had to create yards after the catch before being dragged down by Sherman.

Within the structure of the Seahawks' Cover 3, Sherman is exceptionally tough to attack. The Seahawks defense and his talent mean you are typically making high-risk throws for low gains. This is always going to play into the defense's favor over four quarters.

Yet even when Sherman is left alone in space, it's still not advisable to attack him.

If you are going to do so in a one-on-one situation, the best thing is to play to your receiver's strengths. Even though the 6'3", 195-pound Sherman is a big cornerback, he has a skill set that allows him to be effective against any kind of receiver, and he's exceptionally smart.

Therefore, there's not much point in trying to deceive him.

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Allen's strengths are his route running and quickness. On this play, he is left alone with Sherman in space. Crucially, Allen wins at the release from the line of scrimmage. He takes a quick but decisive step toward the sideline before breaking back in without being touched by Sherman.

The Seahawks corner overplayed the sideline route and mistimed his steps through his release. It was a footwork mistake that Allen was able to exploit.

An attack against Sherman on underneath routes is possibly a better strategy than an attack consisting of deeper routes downfield. He struggles most with in routes regardless of depth. However, using an underneath strategy isn't necessarily a good idea even if it is better.

Though Allen beat him on the above slant route, Sherman typically excels against them. In 2013, he successfully covered 85 percent of such plays. Last week against the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round, he should have intercepted a pass against a slant route.

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Sherman initially lines up off the line of scrimmage against the receiver to the bottom of the screen. He is dropping deeper as the ball is snapped while keeping his eyes on the quarterback, Cam Newton. When he recognizes the play fake and follows Newton's eyes, Sherman is brought toward the middle of the field.

On this play, Sherman runs the receiver's route before he does. The veteran cornerback is rarely caught cheating on routes; it's a testament to how well and how much he studies his opponents.

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Because of his quickness diagnosing the play and his acceleration to move in-field, Sherman breaks on the ball well before the receiver. Sherman should have caught the football with relative ease, but he allowed it to bounce off his chest.

This is the risk that comes with throwing at the All-Pro cornerback.

When the Seahawks upgraded their pass rush before the beginning of last season, Sherman's ability to be this aggressive without being punished grew. To throw downfield against him, your quarterback needs to hold the football. To hold the football, your pass protection needs to hold up.

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Sherman isn't going to be beaten early in his routes very often. Therefore, your quarterback can't simply take three steps in his drop before lofting the ball downfield.

To beat Sherman down the field, you will likely need your quarterback to extend the play either in the pocket or into either flat. That is very tough to pull off against Seattle. To do so within the structure of the play, you need a special receiver.

New York Giant Odell Beckham Jr. was one of the few players who beat Sherman deep in 2014. Beckham is an exceptional talent, but the Seattle corner made the rookie work hard for his big plays against him.

As good as the Packers' Jordy Nelson is, it's unlikely that he can consistently create separation down the field against Sherman. Furthermore, because Sherman won't follow him downfield, it makes little sense for the Packers to match Nelson against him.

Instead, the Packers will likely need to attack Sherman's side of the field by using route combinations that put him in no-man's land.

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Once again, this is something that is very difficult to do because of the Seahawks pass rush. But Washington gave us a good example of it early on during the regular season. Sherman initially lines up in his usual left cornerback spot, almost 10 yards across from wideout DeSean Jackson.

Understanding Jackson's skill set is vitally important for breaking down this play.

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Because of the route combinations, the play draws forward safety Kam Chancellor quickly. As soon as Chancellor crosses Sherman's face, he understands that he has to look to the inside receiver, a tight end running down the seam.

At this point, both receivers have already released into their routes, and Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins is standing comfortably in the pocket.

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Sherman carries the tight end down the seam, as Thomas is too far across the other side of the field, and Bobby Wagner is dropping while looking toward the other sideline. Meanwhile, Cousins is extending the play into the flat before the Seahawks pass rush can get to him.

Crucially, Cousins breaks to the right side, where Jackson is turning up the sideline to complete his double-move route against Chancellor.

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The 6'3", 232-pound Chancellor is a physical freak who has shown off exceptional long speed for a player of his size in the past. In last year's NFC Championship game, he made one of the most impressive pursuit plays that you will see against 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick.

However, Chancellor wasn't fully healthy at this point of the season (Week 5), and Jackson is one of the fastest players in the NFL. Therefore, the safety is comfortably beaten by the wide receiver. Sherman carried the tight end down the seam for a moment too long, meaning he was late to turn back to protect the deep sideline and help Chancellor.

Cousins exploited this.

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The inexperienced quarterback dropped an accurate pass over Chancellor's head for Jackson to run underneath. Sherman tried to recover, but he was left behind as Jackson accelerated away from the cornerback's desperation tackle attempt.

While the Packers have talented receivers, they don't have a player with Jackson's long explosiveness.

Even if they did, they would still need Rodgers to show off mobility that wasn't always evident last Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys to extend the play in the same way that Cousins did. Rodgers did a decent job of this when the sides last met, but he missed a big-play opportunity against Sherman on at least one occasion.

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In the third quarter of that season-opening game, Rodgers broke out of the pocket and ran into the flat. He extended the play to his right side but kept his eyes to the left because Sherman marauded the offense's right. Rodgers ultimately threw the ball into double-coverage over the middle.

Sherman had been beaten by a double move after initially covering an in route. Wide receiver Davante Adams was wide open down the sideline for a big play and maybe even a touchdown.

NFL quarterbacks naturally look to the sideline closest to them when they are outside the pocket and actively avoid throwing across their bodies. Rodgers did the opposite on this play because of Sherman's presence. It cost him an important completion and led to a 4th-and-5 sack.

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Despite this obviously negative result, it would be unwise to judge the whole strategy based on the result of just one play.

The Packers lost to the Seahawks 36-16 that day. The scoreline wasn't a result of poor strategy from the visiting team's coaching staff but rather poor execution by the team's players. On the offensive side, much of that poor execution can be traced back to the quarterback.

Rodgers hadn't hit his stride at that point. He struggled for the first couple of weeks before reaching the peak of his powers a month or so into the regular season.

Against the Seahawks, he completed 23 of 33 passes for 189 yards, one touchdown and one interception. To realistically expect to beat the Seahawks in Seattle, you need your quarterback to have one of his best games of the year.

Rodgers didn't get the most out of his supporting cast in Week 1.

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As the above chart shows, Rodgers' accuracy wasn't bad. He was inaccurate on eight of 34 throws. A defensive penalty negated one of those throws. Rodgers' issue wasn't the consistency of his accuracy but rather his inability to make important plays that were available.

On a few occasions, Rodgers' performance directly led to the Packers offense stalling.

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For this third down, Rodgers does well initially as he steps up in the pocket to negate edge pressure. The quarterback advances into a clear space with the edge-rushers being pushed past him. However, instead of settling he continues moving frenetically.

Rodgers runs himself into a sack instead of keeping his eyes downfield and delivering the football. He didn't have an obvious, easy receiver, but he had two options that might have given him a first down.

It would be understandable for a lesser quarterback to avoid either of these throws, but Rodgers' talent makes those worthwhile attempts.

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On this third down, Rodgers sidesteps out of the pocket against a four-man rush. He quickly recognizes that Nelson is wide open in the back of the end zone and rushes his throw to get him the ball before Thomas arrives.

However, by doing so, Rodgers makes his pass uncatchable. He would have had time to set his feet and drive the ball to Nelson's outside shoulder, but he showed a lack of poise.

That forced his offense to settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown.

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Once again, Rodgers did well to step up in the pocket so he could buy time on this play. He showed off the same frenetic feet after stepping up, however. This meant that he was late to recognize Nelson open down the left sideline.

Rodgers eventually saw him but rushed again and caused the pass to sail over his head into the bench behind the receiver.

These aren't plays that Rodgers failed to make because the Packers decided not to throw the ball at Sherman. These aren't throws into windows that have been tightened because the Seahawks defense used the Packers' unwillingness to throw at Sherman to alter the rest of their coverage.

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These are simply plays that Rodgers didn't execute well enough to be successful.

It wasn't all on the quarterback, as Nelson struggled to adjust to a slightly off-target throw that led to an interception, while Rodgers' offensive line wasn't consistently giving him help. This most notably showed up on the fourth-down sack that followed the quarterback's heave down the field and when the Packers gave up a safety. 

Execution was a much greater problem for the Packers than strategy when they last went to Seattle.

An argument can be made that their strategy to completely avoid Sherman was a smart one. The Packers quashed cornerback's potential for turnovers, while the rest of the team's receivers were still able to get open because the Seahawks didn't adjust their coverage to play off their strategy.

Completely ignoring Sherman's space can cost you big-play opportunities, as shown above, but those shouldn't be the determining factor in the game.

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