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How to Cover Jerry Rice
The query was innocent enough, something about the fear of having to cover the premier wide receiver in pro football, Jerry Rice of the 49ers. But the man taking on that assignment, Seahawk cornerback Patrick Hunter, scoffed at the question. "Don't even ask," he said last Saturday, the day before tracking Rice in San Francisco's 24-22 victory in Seattle. "I don't play this game scared. I go into a game against Jerry Rice the same way I go into a game against any receiver."
In their first practice in preparation for the Niners, some Seahawks had teased Hunter about covering Rice. "You'll be looking at the bottom of Jerry's shoes on Sunday," said one teammate. Such ribbing goes with the territory when you are going to be matched against Rice. Hunter knew what he had to do. "I have to perform well against Jerry for us to have a chance to win," he said.
While watching film of Rice last week, looking for clues to how to stop him, Hunter saw Rice's great cutting ability; the timing he shared with the 49ers' quarterbacks, even the inexperienced Steve Bono; and the burst of speed he showed on crossing patterns. This was to be Hunter's first test against Rice. By Saturday, he had learned the most important thing about Rice. "He works harder than any receiver I've ever seen," Hunter said. "He never takes a play off."
Throughout the game, Hunter recalled later, he was thinking, Consistency. Don't let him make anything big.
Bono wound up throwing 44 passes against Seattle, and Hunter covered Rice, in both zone and man schemes, 19 times. Rice made only one of his six receptions against Hunter, a 16-yard pass into Hunter's zone on a turnaround timing route in the first half. Soon after, in single coverage, Rice and Hunter went up for a pass, and Hunter knocked the ball away.
"They came at me, and I competed hard," said Hunter after the game. "I think between me and him, it was a toss-up." But Rice scored on a nine-yard catch in the third quarter on the opposite side of the field from Hunter, where he made other clutch receptions, and the Niners won. That's often the case when you play Rice's team.