Seahawks vs. 49ers: The underrated importance of cornerback play in run defense


It's game day so I'm going to keep this pretty short and to the point. This week, and over the past few weeks, we writers here at Field Gulls have written quite a few words on the excellent play and punch-you-in-the-mouth attitude of the Seahawks' defense, and particular attention has gone to Richard Sherman. Jacson wrote about Sherman's attitude and how it represents the new Seahawks' new swagger; Thomas has an article written on Sherman that talks about his excellent ability to flip his hips and run with receivers that will go up shortly, and without planning all the attention on Sherman, I'm now in the process of presenting to you with an article on the Seahawks' cornerbacks' importance in run support.

It's been kind of bouncing around in my brain these last few months that Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman's fierce physicality on the edges is important -- possibly very underrated -- to Seattle's overall scheme working. This is a 'spill' defense in many ways -- Seattle clogs up the middle of the field with Brandon Mebane, Alan Branch, and Red Bryant, and spills offensive players to their fast, instinctual linebackers and safeties. These units all work together to make it nigh impossible to rush on the Seahawks with consistency, and as we've seen over the past few weeks and into last year, it's very, very tough to break off a big, long run against this defense.

Bobby Wagner, Kam Chancellor, and of course Bryant, Mebane, and Branch get a ton of love as 'run stuffers', but I actually think that the play of Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner on the outside in run support (not just their pass defense) has gone largely overlooked.

In my 4-3 Under series from a couple of years ago, I pointed out that for Pete Carroll's defensive schemes, strong tacklers at cornerback are important because in this defense they are often the spill containment. As Jene Bremel put it, "the corners are often the "help" when the front seven can't make the tackle. The play-side corner gets the bulk of the extra business - often the strongside corner - but both corners may be the force player in run support as often as the safety."

"But both corners may be the force player in run support as often as the safety."

This has become more and more apparent to me over the last two games as Seattle's cornerbacks make game-changing play after game-changing play, in run support, not just defending the pass.

Let's take a look at a few of them.

1-10-CAR 30 (2:46 3rd Quarter) D.Williams to CAR 29 for -1 yards (B.Browner). FUMBLES (B.Browner), RECOVERED by SEA-B.Browner at CAR 27. B.Browner to CAR 27 for no gain (D.Williams).

Carolina leads 10-6 following a pick-six, and as Seattle's offense stalls on two consecutive drives (another pick by Luke Kuechly and then a punt), the Panthers are looking to drive and put the game away late in the 3rd quarter.

On the first play, after receiving the punt, Cam Newton and the Panthers run an option.

Brandon Browner, a 6'4, 220 linebacker that just so happens to play corner, holds contain on Newton and forces him to pitch. He then uses his great speed to make up the distance between himself and the ball carrier, and makes a strip of the football.

Being able to force Newton to pitch here is pretty impressive, and Browner brought Newton down on a similar play earlier in the game. Remember though, Browner is 'outside contain' as the playside corner - there is no one else between him and the sideline, and if he loses his contain, it could allow DeAngelo Williams to get up field for some big yardage - Browner not only forces the pitch, he regains contain and then forces the strip. That's a hell of a play.


Five plays later, Russell Wilson passes to Golden Tate and the Seahawks score the go-ahead, ultimately game-winning touchdown.

So. Big.

Later in the game, fourth quarter, Panthers driving...

1-6-SEA 6 (5:51) (Shotgun) C.Newton right end to SEA 3 for 3 yards (E.Thomas).

First and goal from the Seahawks' 6 yard line. Panthers will try a designed run here to Cam Newton. Let's not forget who we're dealing with, first of all. In Newton's first season, he set an NFL record with 14 rushing touchdowns, and no doubt, several of them came on plays very similar to this. Seattle must account for Newton as a runner -- keep in mind that most schemes don't account for the quarterback in coverage or in gap support. The Seahawks obviously had to gameplan for this and by the way Richard Sherman reacts to the snap, they probably saw this exact look in practice a few times over the week prior.

Below, you see K.J. Wright out in slot to the offense's left, matched up with Jonathan Stewart. Wagner and Hill are in the middle, and Earl is in the slot to the offensive right. Chancellor is up on the line, as a de facto Sam linebacker.


Ball is snapped. Cam looks to run almost immediately after receiving the ball. Wagner, Hill, and Chancellor all collapse toward the middle of the field - and sure enough, that's where Cam looks to run first.


Peek a boo! Wagner fills the gap nicely, forcing Newton to go outside.


At the snap of the picture below, I'm thinking to myself: This is an easy touchdown for Newton. Look at all that green. Chancellor, Wagner and Hill have all over-committed to the offensive left, leaving Earl Thomas between Cam and paydirt. No offense to Earl, but that's a bad matchup for Seattle (Cam is 6'5, 245, Earl is probably 185 pounds).


Now, note the line of scrimmage. Richard Sherman, on an island out to the sideline, breaks on Newton much, much before he crosses over the line of scrimmage. It's a calculated gamble by Sherman - who sells out to stop what he knew to be a designed run.

Again, note how much green separates Newton from the endzone. Just little Earl there, still marking the slot receiver.


Newton has the corner on Chancellor and Wagner.


That is, until he sees Sherman crashing on him hard. This is not how the defense is drawn up, because, as you'll see in the next photos, Sherman has left his receiver WIDDDDDDDDEEEEEE open in the back of the endzone. His gamble - and yes, it's a huge gamble - works though, because Cam is in 'run-mode' all the way, with the ball tucked under his arm.


Sherman's crash to the middle of the field forces Newton to change course, and his change of course changes the course of the game (that was my half-assed Jacson wordplay attempt).


Sherman lunges, but doesn't get the tackle. His play though, for forcing Newton outside, gives Wagner, Chancellor, and now Earl Thomas, ample time to get to Newton.


A huge stop on 1st down, made possible by an instinctive albeit dangerous gamble by Sherman.

Fast forward two plays, and Brandon Browner comes up HUGE on 3rd down as well. He and Marcus Trufant hold Louis Murphy at the one-foot line from scoring the go-ahead score. Not a run play, but is the importance of physicality from these cornerbacks clear enough for you yet?


The Seahawks would go on to hold Newton and the Panthers on the following fourth-down attempt, and their efforts helped Seattle get the win.

The next week....

Seahawks vs Patriots. 4th Quarter, Seattle still trailing 20-10, and the Patriots are driving. Everything is going New England's way. Seattle cannot do anything on offense, and the defense now sees Tom Brady inside the 20 yard line, looking to ice the game with a touchdown that would put them up 27-10.

Richard Sherman helps prevent that with fundamental, tough, and underrated run defense.

The Patriots ran up the middle of the field twice in a row on the previous two plays, gaining 4 yards apiece. They now sit in 3rd and 2 from the 17 yard line. Seahawks are thinking run. Patriots run.


Ball is snapped.


As you can see below, Kam Chancellor crashes hard at the edge but in New England's stretch run to the right, they bring Deon Branch in to crack back on the contain. You'll see Chancellor triple teamed and Ridley with all the room in the world and only one man to beat.

Richard Sherman on the edge.

Again, this is why Seattle's cornerbacks must be good, strong, fierce tacklers.


Sherman closes on the edge as Chancellor is held up. He breaks down and tackles Ridley - who is a very underrated running back, as Greg Cosell would tell us.


The Patriots settle for 3. This would end up being a huge, huge play, as Seattle mounted a furious comeback in the final 10 minutes to win the game 24-23.

Post script:

I wanted to include this play as well. It's not run support, of course. But, it does illustrate the nature of the cornerbacks' physicality. You don't see big hits from cornerbacks very often, and receivers aren't often expecting it. The short pass game is integral to the New England offense and Wes Welker, despite what that big catch he had for a touchdown earlier in the game might tell you, makes his living in YAC. Brandon Browner does his best to let him know what's waiting for him once he catches the football.


In the big scheme of things, this wasn't an integral play, other than the intangible (well, also tangible) mark it left on Welker. But, you know teams and receivers are watching this play. You know that in the back of Seahawks' future opponents' minds they're now thinking about what they're doing once the ball hits their hands on simple out routes. Not only do slot receivers have to worry about Kam Chancellor, K.J. Wright, and Bobby Wagner while going over the middle, they have to worry about getting blown up on simple 4-yard out-routes meant to provide recievers with yard-after-the-catch room to run. I don't play receiver in the NFL, so I'll never know, but it seems like the intimidation factor Seattle's physical corners bring is a real factor.



Let's circle around and say this. Strong cornerback play will be important tonight against San Francisco. The Niners' run a lot of power schemes, pulling guards, using tight ends to set the edge, counter plays, wham plays, and frankly, Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman are going to have to make some big tackles on Frank Gore, Colin Kaepernick, Kendall Hunter, and company and will have to do so, at times, by getting off of blocks by big, big men. Watch for it.

Both Gifs via BigTrain21 (!!!)

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