What Kind of a Challenge is Richard Sherman?

Photo Credit: Joe Nicholson (USA Today Sports)

At 31 years old, the second act of Richard Sherman’s career is looking a lot like the first.

He is once again a shutdown corner for a dominant defense in the NFC West that has Super Bowl hopes. Only the jersey has changed as Sherman now roams the secondary for the team that was once on the wrong end of Sherman’s viral postgame rant back in 2014.

In his second year with the San Francisco 49ers, Sherman is once again considered the top cornerback in football, per Pro Football Focus. The last time he could say that was 2012, when Sherman was an up-and-coming corner on a defense that would eventually take the league by storm. But a renaissance for a cornerback of Sherman’s age and size is rare. Apparently, there is life after the Legion of Boom.

With 12 career playoff games and a Super Bowl championship under his belt, the veteran looks to lead an inexperienced 49ers secondary into its first playoff action since 2013.

“How he carries himself throughout the year and every day,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan, “I think people gravitate to him.”

At a lean 6-foot-3, Sherman has retained the precision and movement skills that many of his counterparts haven’t, even bouncing back from a torn Achilles in 2017 — the only significant injury of his career that ended his final year in Seattle.

But as Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said this week, his intelligence is still his greatest tool.

“He’s very smart, and I think that leads to the biggest part,” Zimmer said. “He’s a tough competitor. He’ll change up the way he plays bump and run. I think he’s got good vision when he’s off, and so he’s able to break on balls and see things that way, but his intelligence is probably the number one thing.”

Sherman was solid in his first year with the 49ers despite not having any interceptions for the first time in his career. Year 2 in San Francisco has been splashier for Sherman with three interceptions, including a pick six of Jameis Winston.

The Buccaneers game in Week 1 is also when Sherman gave up his lone touchdown of the season. He’s allowed over 35 receiving yards just once this season while remaining among the most efficient pass defenders in football. Sherman ranks first in yards per coverage snap at 0.44, the best mark in the NFL. He’s finished top 10 in that category six of the last seven years.

His 46.8 passer rating when targeted ranks third in 2019. His 19.1 snaps per reception ranks second. A quality tackler, Sherman allowed the second-fewest yards after catch of all corners who played at least 50% of snaps. If there’s a flaw in Sherman’s game, it’s penalties. He drew nine flags this year, seven of which were accepted for 100 yards.

Sherman’s value lies in his ability to shut down one side of the field. The cornerback hasn’t taken a single snap on the right side of the field since joining the 49ers, sticking solely at his left cornerback position (the offense’s right). The offense is given the advantage of choosing their matchup since Sherman doesn’t shadow receivers. But the defense ultimately has the greater advantage if Sherman’s presence eliminates an entire side.

Take Week 17, for instance, when Sherman faced Pete Carroll and his former Seahawks team. It was the only game all season when Sherman wasn’t targeted, and on four of the Seahawk’s six passing plays in the first quarter, they opted to leave Sherman’s side of the field vacant. Whether that approach was related to Sherman or not, the Seahawks had little success, considering they didn’t score a point in the first half.

The Vikings have faced Sherman three times under Zimmer — twice in 2015 and once in 2018. In each matchup their receivers have one catch. When the Vikings beat the 49ers in Week 1 of last season — Sherman’s first game back from his Achilles injury — the Vikings challenged him periodically with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, but often resorted to pitting him against third wide receiver Laquon Treadwell while hoping to win against San Francisco’s other corners.

Their one grab against Sherman was a doozy, though, as Diggs crossed up the five-time Pro Bowler.

“He’s been one of the best players in our league for a very long time,” Diggs said Thursday. “I’ve got a lot of respect for the guy. He’s a very talented individual. Smart.”

A major difference between the 2018 Vikings offense the 2019 version is offensive personnel. Minnesota went from 13th in three-wide-receiver sets last year to dead last under Stefanski and Kubiak, per Sharp Football. Presuming Thielen plays through an ankle injury suffered Wednesday in practice, the Vikings may have to choose out of their top two receivers who and how they want to challenge Sherman.

Sherman varies his stance a lot, to the point where he’s often turned 90 degrees in off coverage, facing the field and funneling receivers to his inside. On the play below in Week 5, Cleveland’s Antonio Callaway tries to go over the top and gets undercut by Sherman for the interception.

“He is physically gifted, he’s long, and he’s got incredible ball skills,” said Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. “There’s nobody smarter, you’re not going to trick him. He’s been doing it a long time. I just think the guy understands how to play in that scheme, and then at the end of the day you just see his football intelligence is off the charts.”

And will Kirk Cousins be willing to attack Sherman, whose ball skills make him a threat to create turnovers and whose tight man-to-man cover ability may not leave many opportunities available? Sherman said this week he doesn’t believe Cousins likes to throw the ball in tight windows, complimenting his patience in the process.

“He throws the ball away when he needs to, he throws the ball into the ground,” Sherman told 49ers reporters. “He throws the ball into a spot when he has somebody open at times. When other quarterbacks would force it in there he doesn’t. He looks downfield, he checks everything, he checks every box and he goes to his outlets. He’s not afraid to do that. He doesn’t get impatient. He’ll take checkdowns all game if that’s what the defense gives him.”

Keep your eyes on Sherman’s side of the field early in the game to see how the Vikings are approaching the matchup. It’ll be a big one.

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