Richard Sherman: The Numbers, The Tape, The Verdict

How good is Richard Sherman? Let’s find out.

Seattle Seahawks’ cornerback Richard Sherman receives a lot of attention for his personality traits. When your first reaction to beating the New England Patriots is to call out Tom Brady, both on the field and on twitter, when your ego is large enough for you to clap opponents who make receptions against you in as patronizing a way as that sounds and when you look to call out a player unprovoked because he holds the reputation that you desire, Darrelle Revis, you tend to draw some of the media’s attention.

When you throw in the fact that you are an elite talent who has emerged in two short seasons, you become one of the biggest draws in the whole league.

Sherman is the type of person who you either love or hate. There is no middle-ground. However, not only does he back up his personality with his play on the field, it’s clear that his personality permeates through his style of play and is a large element of what allows him to succeed. This is one of the things that the relatively new all-22 game film reveals.

When the all-22 tape was first released last off-season, my first inclination was to go back and study Darrelle Revis. Revis was clearly the best cornerback in the NFL at that stage, and my findings supported that notion. Once Revis tore his ACL and Sherman went from having a quietly excellent rookie season to being the shutdown-cornerback elect of the general NFL fanbase, the question came up about how good he really is.

You can do a lot without all-22 game film, but studying cornerbacks’ performances in coverage is impossible without access to it. Yes, you can find how an individual player did on targets that came his way on websites such as Pro Football Focus or watch the games to see parts of the coverage, but to get the whole picture and see what happens from snap-to-snap you need that bird’s-eye-view.

For that reason, I looked at every single snap of Sherman’s most recent season to find out just how good his coverage skills are.

Explaining the Process

Qualifying Plays:
Plays that count:

  • Every snap that has the cornerback in man coverage no matter where the ball is thrown.
  • The above includes sacks, quarterback scrambles and plays where the defensive back has safety help.

Plays that don’t count:

  • Screen plays. Even if the receiver isn’t part of the screen, these plays do not count.
  • Plays where either the receiver or cornerback doesn’t follow through his whole assignment.
  • Zone plays. Any ambiguity in this area will disqualify a play.
  • Any prevent coverage situations.
  • Receptions in the flat without a route run.
  • Running plays(duh!). Including designed quarterback runs.

Failed Coverages:

The ball does not have to be thrown in the defensive back’s direction for the coverage to fail. This is NOT an alysis of how many completions the cornerback allowed, that can be found elsewhere, this is an analysis of how good his coverage is on any given play.

Failed coverages can come at any point of the route, but it is subjective to where the players are on the field in relation to the quarterback. Typically, defensive backs must be within arms reach for underneath/intermediate routes. On deeper passes, there is greater leeway given to the defender.

Failed coverages can be subjective. They must be determined by the situation considering the length of the play and other such variables.

Shut Down:

This category is reserved for those plays when receivers would have to make superhuman catches to beat the coverage. The best example of this is when receivers line up wide and try to run down the sideline, but the defensive back gradually guides them towards the sideline, suffocating the space they have to catch the football in. If a receiver is on the white sideline, he is shut down.

In Position:

This is the opposite of a failed coverage. In order to be ‘In Position’, a defensive back has to be in a position to prevent a relatively well-thrown pass to his assignment.


Individual Matchups



Successful Snaps/Coverage Snaps


1 Danny Amendola 2/4 50%
2 Stevie Johnson 8/19 42%
3 Titus Young 5/13 38%
4 Eric Weems 2/7 28%
5 James Jones 3/11 27%
6 Michael Crabtree 3/11 27%
7 Calvin Johnson 3/12 25%
8 Kevin Ogletree 2/8 25%
9 Randy Moss 2/8 25%
10 Brandon Lloyd 2/8 25%
11 Dez Bryant 2/8 25%
12 Santana Moss 1/4 25%
13 Larry Fitzgerald 4/17 23%
14 Jerome Simpson 2/9 22%
15 Brandon Gibson 4/20 20%
16 Josh Morgan 3/15 20%
17 Julio Jones 1/5 20%
18 Stephen Hill 1/5 20%
19 Miles Austin 1/5 20%
20 Brian Hartline 3/18 16%
21 Chris Givens 3/20 15%
22 Deion Branch 1/10 10%
23 Jordy Nelson 1/11 9%
24 Roddy White 1/11 9%
25 Louis Murphy 1/11 9%
26 Andre Roberts 1/12 8%
27 Brandon Marshall 0/4 0%
28 Aaron Hernandez 0/4 0%
29 Pierre Garcon 0/5 0%
30 Steve Smith 0/5 0%
31 Brandon LaFell 0/5 0%
32 Michael Jenkins 0/6 0%
33 Mario Manningham 0/6 0%
34 Earl Bennett 0/7 0%
35 Edmund Gates 0/8 0%
Totals 62 / 334
Averages 1.77 / 9.54 16.68%

*Those with less than four against Sherman were not included.

 Weekly Breakdown

Week 1: Arizona Cardinals
Total qualifying plays: 19
Failed coverages: 6
Shutdowns: 4
In Position: 9

Sherman didn’t trail Fitzgerald in this game. When Brandon Browner was in the lineup, he rarely moved from the left side of the field so it was easier for teams to keep their best receivers away from him. Fitzgerald and Sherman saw each other on seven snaps, with Fitzgerald beating him three times, including one pass interference penalty.

However, Sherman also came up with a big interception when he took Fitzgerald away with his physical coverage, before working back to the football faster than him.

Screen shot 2013-05-14 at 16.45.02

Sherman balances his physicality with his ball-skills to make an easy interception.

The first impressions of Sherman during the 2012 season showed how his personality is infused with his talent. On one play Sherman pushed Andre Roberts out of bounds by just holding his position and squeezing the space away before he had gotten five yards downfield. Before the above interception, Sherman took away Larry Fitzgerald on a deep ball by disrupting the timing of his route and establishing his position ahead of him down the field. Sherman’s combination of quick feet and aggressive play allowed Kam Chancellor to come over the top for the clean interception.

Screen Shot 2013-05-16 at 19.00.07

Chancellor gets to the ball just ahead of Fitzgerald after Sherman disrupted his route.

The play was eventually negated for an offside penalty on Marcus Trufant that proved to be irrelevant to how the play developed.

Outside of his battle with Fitzgerald, Sherman also let tight end Rob Housler escape him at the goalline and Andre Roberts caught a deep comeback for a first down.

Week 2: Dallas Cowboys
Total qualifying plays: 22
Failed coverages: 6
Shutdowns: 4
In Position: 12

Against the Cowboys, Sherman’s most notably play showed off his incredible recovery speed.

Sherman has run over 30 yards without giving Bryant an inch of space.

Sherman has run over 30 yards without giving Bryant an inch of space.

Sherman ran over 30 yards down the right sideline with Bryant, not giving him any space to breathe. However, once he got to around 35 yards downfield, he turned his body expecting Bryant to work back down the sideline. Sherman turned his shoulders and stepped towards the sideline, but Bryant kept working towards the endzone and moved infield.

Tony Romo had extended the play into the right flat, but within an instant, Sherman was back in position to prevent any completion. Even though he sold out for one route, his agility and short-area speed meant that there was little to no chance of the Cowboys making a play down the field.

Week 3: Green Bay Packers
Total qualifying plays: 26
Failed coverages: 5
Shutdowns: 8
In Position: 13

Sherman spent most of his time on Jordy Nelson during this game. Nelson was blatantly hampered by something because he wasn’t running at full speed and spent much of the game just running downfield without really trying to shake Sherman.

James Jones and Greg Jennings combined to beat Sherman in coverage, while he slipped once when he was covering Nelson.

Week 4: St. Louis Rams
Total qualifying plays: 19
Failed coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 6
In Position: 9

Sherman gave up his first big play of the season to Chris Givens, when he avoided Sherman’s aggressive approach at the start of his route before using his speed to create separation down the field. Givens didn’t have long to boast about it, because a miscommunication between he and Sam Bradford allowed Sherman to intercept a pass directed his way soon after. Again, the turnover was negated for a penalty that didn’t impact Sherman’s coverage.

Much of his time on the field was spent covering Brandon Gibson, while the Rams used Chris Givens to attack the deep portion of the field routinely. He covered Danny Amendola twice, getting the better of him on both occasions.

Week 5: Carolina Panthers
Total qualifying plays: 21
Failed coverages: 1
Shutdowns: 5
In Position: 15

Watching Steve Smith and Sherman battle was something spectacular, but it didn’t happen too often. Sherman spent most of the game on Louis Murphy or Brandon LaFell, only being beaten once by Murphy who slipped past him deep. Even if the ball had come his way, Sherman had very quickly recovered to limit the potential of any big play.

When Sherman and Smith faced off, there was no questioning who got the better of the matchup…

Steve Smith isn't used to facing defensive backs he can't bully.

Steve Smith isn’t used to facing defensive backs he can’t bully.

Sherman’s job was made somewhat easier by the Panthers’ route combinations that lacked variety and creativity.

Week 6: New England Patriots
Total qualifying plays: 26
Failed coverages: 3
Shutdowns: 8
In Position: 15

Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Brandon Lloyd all suffered playing against Sherman. He was excellent throughout the game and showed off his versatility by intercepting a pass after lining up in the slot over Branch. However, his most notable play came when the ball wasn’t thrown his way.

Screen Shot 2013-05-16 at 19.32.01

In the second quarter, the Patriots did what they so often do. At the goalline, they came to the field in a heavy set with Aaron Hernandez lined up next to the offensive tackle. Sherman isn’t on the field in this situation, because the Seahawks are expecting the Patriots to run the ball. Instead, safety Jeron Johnson is in the left cornerback position outside of Hernandez.

Screen Shot 2013-05-16 at 19.32.16

Before the snap, Brady motions Hernandez into a wide receiver position, at which point Johnson follows him so they are matched up on an island. This is a clear mismatch advantage for the Patriots because Hernandez is as much of a wide-receiver as he is a tight-end, whereas Johnson has the coverage abilities of a safety, not an elite cornerback.

Screen Shot 2013-05-16 at 19.32.34

As soon as he took the ball from the center, Brady turned and threw the ball to Hernandez, who towered over the defender for an easy touchdown.

Screen Shot 2013-05-16 at 19.45.31

In a somewhat similar scenario at the goalline one quarter later, the Patriots were about to lock up the victory by extending to a 17 point lead. The Patriots were in a passing formation, so the Seahawks had reacted with a personnel package that was able to counter it. Hernandez was split wide again, but this time it was Sherman who lined up on the island with him.

Screen Shot 2013-05-16 at 19.46.12

Brady’s first read is Hernandez at the top of the formation. He doesn’t instantly throw the ball this time, but he does stick with that side of the field to give Hernandez time to win on the route and gain position for the jump-ball.

Screen Shot 2013-05-16 at 19.46.26

After sticking with Hernandez for more than a moment, it becomes clear that Sherman has played the route perfectly and is in position to disrupt any pass, or potentially come away with an interception as his head has snapped back almost instantly to the ball.

Because Sherman is in such good position, Brady is forced to look back inside and move onto his second read.

Screen Shot 2013-05-16 at 19.46.42

Instead of throwing into a one-on-one situation in space, something that almost always favors the offense, Brady is forced to try and force the ball into a tight window for Wes Welker. Welker misses the rocketed pass and Earl Thomas is already in position to make the interception because he wasn’t pressed into cheating to Hernandez’s side of the field even when Brady looked that way.

This is the impact of a shutdown cornerback. He forces the offense to go where it doesn’t want to go and allows the defense to cheat in the right directions.

Week 7: San Francisco 49ers
Total qualifying plays: 10
Failed coverages: 1
Shutdowns: 3
In Position: 6

The Seahawks played a lot of zone, while the 49ers ran the ball a lot so there were very few plays to analyze in this game. Randy Moss beat him on a comeback route, but he was also shut down the other three times they lined up across from each other.

Week 8: Detroit Lions
Total qualifying plays: 25
Failed coverages: 8
Shutdowns: 4
In Position: 13

Megatron versus Optimus Prime it was not. Although the narrative leading up to this game during the season pointed to a fearsome battle between Sherman and Johnson, while Johnson’s three receptions for 46 yards made people think that Sherman had come out on top, the young cornerabck actually spent more time trailing Titus Young than Johnson.

Sherman faced Johnson 12 times and Young 13 times. Even though Johnson beat Sherman in the endzone late in the fourth quarter for what would have been a game-winning touchdown if Matthew Stafford hadn’t hesitated, it was Young who really got the better of Sherman.

Early on, Young ran two crisp underneath routes to get away from Sherman, but on both occasions the impact was limited because he was tackled immediately. Young followed it up with a comeback route where he came free again, before using his speed to fly down the sideline for a wide-open 46 yard touchdown reception. Sherman let Young get by him slightly, most likely expecting the young receiver to come back underneath as he had done so often, but Young never looked back and sprinted down the sideline. Once Sherman had set himself up for the underneath routes, he had no chance of catching up to the now former Lions player.

Week 9: Minnesota Vikings
Total qualifying plays: 22
Failed coverages: 3
Shutdowns: 8
In Position: 11

Unfortunately for Seahawks fans, Sherman and Harvin only faced off three times here. Not enough to get a real evaluation. Harvin beat him once, but the cornerback spent most of his day dominating Michael Jenkins and dealing with some decent moves from Jerome Simpson.

Week 10: New York Jets
Total qualifying plays: 16
Failed coverages: 1
Shutdowns: 5
In Position: 10

Stephen Hill bounced off of Sherman’s overly physical coverage on a deep out on his first snap in coverage, but after that it was plain sailing for the Seahawks and their star cornerback. Edmund Gates took most of the punishment, while Jeremy Kerley and Chaz Schilens pitched in three combined snaps.

Week 12: Miami Dolphins
Total qualifying plays: 19
Failed coverages: 3
Shutdowns: 4
In Position: 12

Save for one snap against Rishard Matthews, Sherman spent the whole game shutting down Brian Hartline. Hartline came free on three underneath routes, gaining very little ground even on those. He was overmatched technically and physically. It’s no surprise the Dolphins paid such a high-price for Mike Wallace this off-season.

Week 13: Chicago Bears
Total qualifying plays: 18
Failed coverages: 2
Shutdowns: 5
In Position: 11

The Bears understood that the Seahawks didn’t move their cornerbacks around the field too often, so Sherman saw Eric Weems and Earl Bennett more often than he saw Brandon Marshall. On the six snaps that they did face off, Sherman didn’t give him an inch.

For most of the game, Sherman proved why Weems was nothing more than a special teams player. Weems got free twice in the whole game, once when Sherman slipped and once on a post pattern where he was immediately caught. At one point, Sherman overpowered Weems to the point that he guided him out of bounds and onto the ground before he had managed to get two yards downfield.

Week 14: Arizona Cardinals
Total qualifying plays: 17
Failed coverages: 1
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 14

In their second clash of the season, Sherman got the opportunity to follow Fitzgerald all over the field because Brandon Browner was suspended. He obviously relished the opportunity as he gave Fitzgerald nothing on 10 snaps and played perfect coverage to return an interception for a touchdown.

Week 15: Buffalo Bills
Total qualifying plays: 23
Failed coverages: 9
Shutdowns: 1
In Position: 13

Last year, when I did this analysis with Darrelle Revis, Stevie Johnson proved to be one of his most difficult assignments. Johnson is so unique in how he runs his routes and how exceptionally fast his feet are. He doesn’t waste steps and doesn’t tip off his routes to his defenders. Just like Revis did, Sherman really struggled with Johnson.

Screen Shot 2013-05-16 at 03.49.28

Johnson lost Sherman many times underneath and on intermediate routes with his stuttering and fast feet, but he also beat him deep on a few occasions, most notably for this touchdown when Sherman tried to lock him down in press-man coverage but the receiver blew by him to create a massive window for his quarterback to throw into.

After watching him against two of the very best cornerbacks in the NFL the past two years, it’s clear that Stevie Johnson just needs a legitimate quarterback to become a top receiver in this league.

Week 16: San Francisco 49ers
Total qualifying plays: 19
Failed coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 6
In Position: 9

Whether it was Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, Michael Crabtree or Delanie Walker, none of the 49ers’ receivers got much off of Sherman on a day when their offense struggled mightily.

Week 17: St. Louis Rams
Total qualifying plays: 32
Failed coverages: 5
Shutdowns: 4
In Position: 21

Sherman saw a lot of Brandon Gibson in this game, but most notably, he tried to cover Danny Amendola on two occasions and couldn’t get near him underneath.

Wildcard Weekend: Washington Redskins
Total qualifying plays: 27
Failed coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 4
In Position: 19

Three of Sherman’s failed coverages came on quick slants, while the other was a post move through traffic that forced him away from his assignment.

Divisional Round: Atlanta Falcons
Total qualifying plays: 19
Failed coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 5
In Position: 10

Roddy White occupied most of his time, but Tony Gonzalez showed on two snaps why he is going to the hall-of-fame. Gonzalez used his bulk to draw a pass interference flag on Sherman early on, before running an incredible crisp route to completely turn Sherman around later on. Surprisingly, Sherman had a lot of success against Julio Jones, who only lost him once when he slipped.

2012 NFL Season Total:
Total qualifying plays: 380
Failed coverages: 70
Shutdowns: 86
In Position: 224
Sherman’s success rate for the season: 81%

In Comparison to Darrelle Revis
2011 NFL Season Total:
Total qualifying plays: 332
Failed coverages: 130
Shutdowns: 46
In Position: 156
Revis’ success rate for the season: 60.2%

It must be noted that Revis trailed the opposition’s best receiver on a weekly basis and was put in single coverage with no help at all much more often than Sherman was. He also moved into the slot or swapped to the other side of the field when necessary, something Sherman only did when Browner was suspended.

Other Aspects of his Play

The most significant difference between Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis is the schemes they play in. Revis played significantly more man coverage for the Jets during his last full season on the field than Sherman did this past season. Gus Bradley uses some creative coverage schemes to slow down the opposition. He routinely mixes man-coverage with different zone looks that force the offense as a whole to hesitate.

Screen Shot 2013-05-15 at 18.01.34

This is something that the Seahawks routinely do with their cornerbacks and linebackers. It appears like a simple zone at this point, but the play started with the linebacker tracking the inside receiver down the field on his shoulder. Once he reaches a certain point, he drops off onto the receiver in the flat, with Sherman falling back to take the receiver going deep. It does give the smarter, more accurate, aggressive quarterbacks a chance to get the ball to an open receiver, but it also baits the quarterback into making a really difficult read and throwing a perfect pass, unless he wants to risk an easy interception.

Often being called an excellent zone cornerback is considered a stigma, but Sherman is probably better in zone coverage than he is as a man cornerback, even though he is a better man cornerback than 99 percent of players playing his position.

At the beginning of this piece I pointed out how Sherman’s personality permeates through his on-field play. That is very evident in man-coverage as he is incredibly aggressive with receivers, but his ego really comes out in zone coverage.

Screen Shot 2013-05-15 at 02.23.55

On this play, the Patriots split running-back Stevan Ridley wide. Sherman has next to no interest in Ridley when he runs a short curl route so takes the opportunity to freelance and cheat onto the inside receiver, Deion Branch, who is running up the seam. This seems like a big risk from Sherman, but as the play developed(and because it wasn’t a once off) it was clear that it was a calculated risk.

Sherman had his eyes in the backfield from the start, something zone corners typically do, and he could see that Brady immediately looked to his left. With the Seahawks’ quality pass-rush, Sherman understood that Brady wouldn’t have all day to flip his shoulders from one side of the field to face the other side, where Ridley was, and even if he did, the ball would still have a distance to travel before it would reach it’s intended target.

Instead of sticking outside in his zone, Sherman is in perfect position to run in front of Branch onto any pass for a simple interception. Because of the players inside of him, Brady would never be able to see him coming. Alas, Brady never actually makes the throw that is highlighted by the green arrow, but he never gets back to seeing Ridley open in the slot either, as he checks down to Gronkowski over the middle as the pocket collapses on him.

Had this been just one play, it may have been luck, but this is something that Sherman is always willing to try.

He is very intelligent at understanding coverage scenarios before they develop, has outstanding ball-skills and incredible closing speed. Those are all aspects of an elite zone cornerback. There are plenty of players in the NFL who have similar physical traits to Sherman, but none match his intelligence with them.

Because of his brash demeanor, it’s probably difficult for many to believe that he was born of a Stanford education. Instead of seeing him as an intelligent player, the stereotype is that he is just a bruiser who has the speed to play cornerback. However, being a bruiser and being a smart player are not mutually exclusive.

Both his physicality and intelligence combine when quarterbacks leave the pocket.

Hit leaving pocket.

In today’s NFL, quarterbacks routinely look to leave the pocket. This typically stresses the defense because it forces the secondary to cover for longer, but it is often forgotten that once a quarterback leaves the pocket defensive backs can become as physical as they like with the receivers they are covering. As soon as the opposing quarterback leaves the pocket against the Seahawks, Sherman is always looking to knock his assignment to the ground.

This may seem like a cheap move to the uninformed, but it is the smartest way to stop receivers from making big plays against you. The quickness of thought to recognize the scenario and his understanding of the rules is something that not every player possesses, even at this level.

Sherman finished last season with 64 tackles, one sack, three forced fumbles and eight interceptions, only four of which occurred on the plays considered above. He is clearly an elite talent at the cornerback position who can play in a variety of schemes and scenarios against any type of opposition.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf

Leave a Reply

    • Fancy seeing you here.
      I agree. This is amazing. It’s probably the only sport that you could do this for too. That said, I’d love to see something similar for shutdown defencemen.
      A hockey player taking 20 shifts a game for 80 games… That’s 1600 possible shifts. Assuming we are only interested in shifts where a player actually covers someone for a length of time in the defensive zone… That number drops down to maybe 500-800 shifts. Probably double the amount instances as you had to deal with.
      It could be categorized as chance allowed, covered, cleared, or intentional zone exit.

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  4. This was Great! With the only major knock on Sherman being that he doesn’t follow the best receiver, I’m now really interested in what Brandon Browner’s numbers look like since he is also arguably a Pro-Bowl level corner. It’s really not fair the Seahawks have this talent level at the position.

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  8. There’s a perception by some that Earl Thomas “makes” Sherman. Since you’ve looked at every play, I’m wondering what your opinion is. How much easier does Thomas make it for Sherman to get a successful grade on a man-to-man coverage snap and how would I recognize Thomas’s effect on the play if I were looking at the all-22?

    • I wouldn’t consider Thomas at all in evaluating Sherman. Thomas’ value is that they can play single-high safety, but it doesn’t affect Sherman’s ability to play unbelievably aggressive and effective man coverage.

    • It’s always very difficult to project the impact of a lost coach or coordinator. The Seahawks do have a lot of new faces and young pillars on that side of the ball, but Pete Carroll has a reputation for being a good defensive coach also so it’s a matter of what wins out.

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