"If you don't have the mental aspect of the game down, that's one advantage (opponents) have on you. Because you know, everybody has the physical attributes at this level - everybody can run fast, jump high, do everything you need to do to be successful, but studying film for hours, and hours, and watching receivers, and watching splits, and watching second down, third down, first down, red zone, everything, that gives you a different kind of advantage. It kind of gives you a strategic advantage, because, when it's third and five, and you've watched every third and five they've had for the last four or five games, you know which route combinations they like out of which formations, and when they show you the formations you want to see, it makes it very easy to stop them."
"I've been watching Fitz since January 3rd. I've been watching him since the game ended last year, because I didn't like the result. I definitely didn't like the loss. So, I've been watching film on him, Dez Bryant, pretty much all the receivers we're going to be going against. That's the only way you can prepare. If you go into the game blind, and you don't know their tendencies, their offensive tendencies, -- there are offensive tendencies - the plays they run, the plays they love, their bread and butter, then you have receivers -- the routes they love, the routes they're going to get open on. If it's fourth and five and they're going for it, you want to know which routes they have in their bag."
- Richard Sherman
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, along with linebacker K.J. Wright, was one of the few big rookie surprises for the Seahawks' defense last season, stepping into a starting role and likely locking down that spots for years to come. Sherman busted onto the scene in week five and never looked back, racking up four interceptions and 17 passes defensed in ten starts. He became more respected along the way by opposing quarterbacks and coordinators - as ProFootballFocus put it in their recent column that dubbed Sherman a Secret Superstar, "after averaging 9.25 passes thrown his way in his first four starts, he averaged just 4.8 passes in the following five... He allowed less than half of the passes thrown his way to be completed, and... had four passes defended to go with two interceptions. Against the Bears and 49ers in Weeks 15 and 16, respectively, he allowed just two catches against an interception and two passes defended."
To me, this was unexpected. I remember talking to Davis after last year's Draft that Sherman's tape from Stanford was pretty rough. He took poor angles, struggled at times, so his development into a starting caliber corner in the NFL (probably more than that, really) was a very nice surprise. Now, I always believed he was a great prospect as a press corner. He fit the bill physically, he seemed to have a lot of confidence, and I had even advocated it a bit prior to the Seahawks selection - but his ability to acclimate into the NFL game so quickly was seriously impressive. Especially considering he played receiver his first couple of seasons at Stanford.
I took the time to transcribe parts of his interviews this past week with John Clayton and the Brock and Salk show, because he provided a great glimpse into what it takes to play corner in the NFL, and just in general how much work it takes to succeed as a pro.
Clayton asked him about his switch from receiver to cornerback.
"I played my junior year and my senior year (at Stanford) - after I had redshirted for receiver, so technically two full years of (playing corner)," he recollected. "(The chage) was very difficult at first, just transitioning to seeing the whole field, seeing the offense, having to tackle, getting the stance. It's just, it's like seeing the game - I can't even explain it - it's the total opposite. So, you just have to adjust to the way you see the game and the way it's played."
More specifically, "It's tough because it's the opposite of getting out of your breaks. You have to come out of your breaks coming forward, when usually (at receiver) you'd be coming out of your breaks from behind. Seeing routes - I've seen it from the offensive side, now I see it from the defensive side, it helps me understand how to stop the offense a lot more effectively."
Sherman hit on some of the advantages that he has from his time playing receiver, noting that he has a heightened awareness of "what the quarterbacks are looking for, protections they're in. Sometimes they'll be in the 2-minute offense, and I'll hear a few protections that quarterbacks are shouting out, and I'll know - whether it's going to be quick game, whether it's going to be 5-step (drop), you know, because I know protections."
Part of the reason that Sherman has had so much success so quickly in the NFL is due to the fact he's perfectly suited - athletically and mentally - for the system the Seahawks run, a system predicated on playing a lot of press man coverage. Clayton asked Sherman what it takes to play that type of defense at this level. "You just have to have a tremendous amount of confidence and belief in the system you're playing in, because you're going to be on that island - you're going to be on that island a lot of the time, no matter what," he replied.
"Whether it's third and three, third and 15, third and one, second and one, you're going to be out there by yourself, so you just have to have a total belief in what you're doing, and what you practice. If you don't, you can kind of lose yourself in the game, and go downhill fast. As a corner, especially in the defense that we play in, you have to believe in yourself, and that's kind of where it kind of seems like you're cocky or arrogant out there, but if you're any other way, you'll start to lose confidence, balls will be caught here, caught there, then the next thing you know you've given up nine catches in the game for a hundred and something yards."
Sherman was able to hit the ground running because he had a lot of experience with press in the past. "I think we played about 50-50 (press man vs zone in college)," he noted. "In high school, that's what we were known for - for press man corners. They actually just sent two off this year, and that's what they breed. That's all we play, cover-1, and cover-0. After not playing in my first two years of college, and going back to it, it kind of was just like riding a bike. Once you get back out there, and seeing everything, you get used to the movements, and you start remembering what made you a good corner."
What about in the Seahawks' defense? How often do they run press?
"It's quite a bit of man. It's probably around 60, 65%, 70%, because that's playing to our strengths, we have a lot of really athletic defenders, and great safeties that can guard receivers or tight ends. So, that allows us the freedom to do that. ...We play a lot of one-high, and that's another form of (cover) one - we play a (cover) zero. You know, I think that shows a lot of Carroll's faith in our athletic abilities."
He continued, "I think that's one of our most underrated things about our team - our depth at the defensive back spot. A lot of them aren't big name guys - shoot, our starters aren't big name guys really. Walt Thurmond, with Tru - they brought Tru back, Roy Lewis, Coye Francies, Phil Adams - you know, these are - if me or Browner stepped off the field or got hurt or anything, we wouldn't lose a beat with these guys. They're just as competitive, just as fluid, just as strong of defenders as we are. Coach Carroll preaches competition, and that's exactly what we have in the DB room. We feel like anybody could step out there and we'd still be one of the best defensive backfields out there."
I really enjoyed listening to Sherman's interviews, both with John Clayton and Brock and Salk this week on 710ESPN, because he does a great job explaining how to play the position, in the NFL, from a nuts and bolts point of view. Many of us have played football at some level, but it's intriguing to me to know how players get an edge, or how they prepare.
Sherman's dialogue runs contrary to what you get from a lot of player interviews. As you'll often see, less eloquent responses may tend to gravitate to this type of thing that you cannot learn much from:
Sherman's perspective is an interesting one, and he ended talking about a few of the nuances that go into playing the position, especially as a press cornerback is concerned.
"A lot of it is the tricks of the trade," he noted. "And I think playing receiver has helped me with that as well. At receiver, you had all your little subtle pushoffs at all the different points of your route, and I do it at different points of my coverage also. Nothing that's going to be noticeable, but there are a lot of things that you can get away with that can help you at this level, I just happened to figure those things out a little earlier."
Press coverage is becoming more prevalent, and Sherman explains why.
"With how accurate these quarterbacks are, how quick they are, how quickly they diagnose the defense, in order to be successful, you have to knock receivers off their routes, change the timing, change the place he's going to be. Quarterbacks are all about timing; they've seen the routes a million times, they've seen receivers in the same spots a million times. You've got to change their spots - that's what press coverage does. It changes the timing. It changes the spot the receiver is going to be in. Even if it's subtle, you know, even a half a step - just enough for the receiver to only get his fingertips on it, it changes the offensive mentality."