It's hard to avoid the Richard Sherman-Michael Crabtree talk the last couple days, but that's just pop-culture stuff. I don't care about that. I care about what they do on the field.
Crabtree said Sherman really isn't that good. First of all, Sherman is a really good player. I think everyone knows that (also, Sherman's claim that Crabtree is "mediocre" is also far from accurate; Crabtree is a very good receiver).
What makes Sherman a good football player? He’s really smooth and fluid, for a tall guy (he is 6-foot-3) he has excellent ability to change directions, and his length is an attribute. That matters. You put all that together, and he's an excellent cornerback.
The other thing is he’s very, very patient. He doesn’t really react to anything until the receiver shows his hand. He’s a comfortable player. You think about Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and how he looks so comfortable in pocket – Sherman is a comfortable player too, at a different position. He never looks like he’s playing fast or frenetically. He’s very smooth.
The difference between Sherman and, say, Darrelle Revis when he was with the Jets is the Seahawks aren't predominantly a man-to-man team. They are mostly a zone-coverage team, with "Cover 3" being their most popular call. So Sherman doesn’t play press man coverage on every snap like Revis where you say, "He’s your guy, follow him and cover him with no help." Seahawks don’t play defense like that. But Sherman is still a great player.
Because the Seahawks prefer zone, the funny thing is that Crabtree and Sherman didn't match up one-on-one on too many plays Sunday. But they did on the play that sealed Seattle's NFC championship win. Sherman made a good play that resulted in an interception, but he wasn't the only Seahawks defender who made the play happen.
The 49ers came out in a three-by-one formation, with three receivers on one side and Crabtree the lone receiver on the other, which was Sherman's side. Against that alignment in the Seattle defensive scheme, the cornerback to that side will play man-to-man against the single receiver lining up outside the numbers.
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick was 100 percent correct throwing to Crabtree. You've got your No. 1 wideout in one-on-one coverage, and Crabtree is a good receiver (contrary to what Sherman might say). That's where the coverage takes you, even if it's against their best cornerback. You can’t go into a game saying, "I won’t throw a ball against a certain corner." Going to Crabtree is what the coverage said to do. (49ers coach Jim Harbaugh confirmed Tuesday that Kaepernick made the right decision)
I think Kaepernick's throw was impacted a bit by Cliff Avril's pass rush against right tackle Anthony Davis. Avril pushed Davis back into Kaepernick, and that impacted Kaepernick’s ability to follow through. So the throw was a hair short. In that case, 18 inches makes a big difference. Think about Ben Roethlisberger's touchdown to Santonio Holmes in the Super Bowl a few years ago. In these situations, 18 inches makes a big difference.
Sherman was able to make a great play. He had tight coverage, and even if the ball is thrown 18 inches longer my guess is it's not caught by Crabtree – but it's not an interception either.
Now let's get back to one of Sherman's strengths as a player, his length.
He knows he has that length, and he knows what it can do for him. It helps him do things that maybe a 5-11 corner can't do. That’s critical.
His height and long arms allow him to maintain a comfortable separation with wideouts. He doesn’t have to be right up in their face. On the pass to Crabtree, it was his length that allowed him to break up a pass to the end zone.
There was one other important element to the play, and that was linebacker Malcolm Smith, who actually made the interception.
San Francisco's back on the play, Kendall Hunter, was offset to the same side as Crabtree, and he was Smith's responsibility. Hunter released laterally into the flat. But Smith didn’t attack the back. He stayed back figuring if Kaepernick wanted to throw behind the line, they’ll rally up and tackle him and that would take time off the clock. Even if Hunter got the ball and got out of bounds, they wouldn’t have gained a whole lot. So he did the smart thing and played it a little deeper than he might have in a normal situation. He turned and ran, the pass gets hit in the air, they were in the red zone so Smith didn’t have far to go and he makes a huge play.
Smith played the situation. I can’t tell you how many times you see defensive players not understand the situation and jump flat routes on a play like that. Smith played it smart. It paid off for him, and the rest of the Seahawks.
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NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Throughout the season, Cosell will join Shutdown Corner to share his observations on the teams, schemes and personnel from around the league.