The blueprint for beating Richard Sherman? Target him early and often
The Seahawks entered last season's playoffs as the NFL's stingiest defense, as they were again in 2013. They exited the postseason after allowing the Falcons to run up 30 points in their second-round game in Atlanta in January 2013. It was the most they had yielded all year. The Falcons' success stemmed, in some measure, from an offensive strategy that was as unabashed as it was unexpected. They had their quarterback, Matt Ryan, direct his passes early and often toward whichever receiver was covered by one Seahawks defender in particular. Ryan threw at the defender eight times, more than he has been targeted in any of the 18 games he has since played. The defender was Richard Sherman.
You are by now sick of watching replays of Sherman proclaiming, to Fox's Erin Andrews, that he is "the best corner in the game." That is something that he is not, according to most quantitative measures anyway, though he is close. The analytics website Pro Football Focus ranks him sixth. According to STATS Inc., Sherman was burned -- meaning that he permitted a player he was covering to catch a pass -- 50.8 percent of the time this season, a strong rate but one that was exceeded by other top corners like the Broncos' Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (38.1 percent), the Colts' Vontae Davis (42.7 percent), the Browns' Joe Haden (45.8 percent) and the Dolphins' Brent Grimes (50.5 percent).
Sherman is an elite cornerback. Roddy White, the Falcons receiver, conceded as much in the minutes after his team's victory against Sherman's Seahawks a year ago. Even so, White made sure to note, "He's no Revis," in reference to then-Jet and current Buccaneer Darrelle Revis. When Revis has two intact anterior cruciate ligaments, he remains the league's gold standard among corners, a player whose cover skills are so overwhelming that any gameplan predicated on targeting him would be both foolish and dangerous. "We got Pro Bowl players on this team, and we're not going to throw it to us because he's out there?" White asked, talking about Sherman. "Come on, man."
The Falcons made clear their intention of attacking Sherman on the very first play of last January's game, when Ryan threw deep down the right sideline to Julio Jones. Sherman knocked the pass away, but the Falcons were undaunted. Ryan quickly targeted Sherman's receiver -- sometimes Jones, sometimes White -- three more times, the third coming on the first play of the second quarter. Sherman, to that point, was holding his own -- none of the four passes had been completed -- but he clearly knew what was up, and expressed his take on it. After Ryan's fourth throw against him, he raised his finger to his temple, and twirled it.
Soon, though, Atlanta's plan paid off. With just under four and a half minutes remaining in the first half, Ryan dropped back from the Seahawks' 47 and lofted a pass high and deep over the middle toward White, who had gotten a step on -- who else? -- Sherman. Though Sherman tripped and fell at the 5, White clearly already had him beat, and he hauled in Ryan's pass in the end zone. White immediately turned around and gestured for Sherman to approach him, and then the receiver began jawing at him. "He's a bit of a talker, and I just asked him to talk to me for a little while," White would explain. "He didn't have too much to say to me after that play." In fact, all that Sherman seemed to do was clap.
White's touchdown gave the Falcons a 20-0 lead at the half. As it turned out, a late Russell Wilson comeback would mean that they would need every one of those points: the final score was 30-28. Atlanta did not do most of its damage against Sherman specifically. Aside from White's long catch, Ryan completed just one of the other seven throws he directed at the Seahawks' top corner, for 13 yards. But the White touchdown was crucial, and showed that Sherman can be beaten.
What's more, the Falcons' early signaling that they were unafraid to go after him forced the rest of the Seahawks' vaunted defensive backs to adjust to that reality, and to devote more attention to supporting him than they normally might. Sherman's half of the field would not be closed for business on this day. That reality created more room for the Falcons' other talented receivers -- whichever one of White or Jones that Sherman was not covering on a given play, as well as tight end Tony Gonzalez and slot receiver Harry Douglas -- to operate freely, and to allow Ryan to go 22-of-27 on throws on which he targeted a defender other than Sherman.
You might think that teams would have tried to replicate the Falcons' strategy when playing the Seahawks this season. They have not, especially recently. Sherman was not targeted more than six times in any game this season, according to Pro Football Focus' analysis, and opponents threw at him just six times, total, in the Seahawks' last four contests, including their playoff wins over the Saints and 49ers. Two weeks ago, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick didn't meaningfully attempt to test Sherman until his offense's final play of the NFC Championship, and you know what happened. (Kaepernick did also try to hit a Sherman-covered Michael Crabtree with a short pass early in the second quarter; Sherman broke it up, but was flagged for defensive holding).
The Seahawks' opponents failed to follow the Falcons' blueprint not because they didn't notice it, but because they, by and large, did not have the personnel to do so. Of the 13 teams the Seahawks faced this season, seven finished in the NFL's bottom 12 in passing offense, and just two up ended up ranking higher than 13th -- New Orleans and, yes, Atlanta. Neither of them, though, had the dynamic set of receiving options of last year's Falcons: a pair of Pro Bowl-caliber wideouts with the speed, size and physicality to beat the 6-foot-3 Sherman one-on-one (Jones had already fractured his foot when his team played the Seahawks in November, and White was still gimpy due to injuries to his hamstring and ankle), as well as a star tight end and an effective slot man.
Guess which team does have that type of receiving corps? The Broncos, against whom the Seahawks will play in Sunday's Super Bowl. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker stand 6-3 and represent a duo similar in style to a healthy White and Jones. Julius Thomas, a Pro Bowl tight end this year, could hold his own against a late-career Gonzalez. And Wes Welker, obviously, represents a greater threat out of the slot than the productive Douglas.
The Broncos also have a quarterback who just had the most successful passing season in NFL history, Peyton Manning. At Tuesday's Super Bowl Media Day, Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, naturally, declined to divulge anything specific about his plans, but he did speak to the advantage his offense holds when it is able to spread its passing attack around. "The more options you have, obviously that helps you," he said. "Whether it's [based on] a matchup or the play called, Peyton's going to go where the ball's supposed to go."
As the Falcons demonstrated last January, Gase should not only avoid the temptation to stay away from Sherman -- as so many teams this season have done -- but should call plays designed to have Manning directly challenge the Seahawks' corner, and early in the game. He might make Sherman, on the field, what he has quickly become off of it: the center of attention. This has nothing to do with anything involving Sherman's personality, or anything he has said. It is not about who is and who is not a thug, nor who is and who is not a man. It is simply a good strategy -- and given the Broncos' offensive personnel, potentially a winning one.