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A season of Sherm

We take an in depth dive into Sherman’s inaugural season in San Francisco

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

When Richard Sherman was released by Seattle he was vengeful. He felt shunned by the empire he helped build. He was not, however, the same Sherman he was when the Legion of Boom was in its prime. Coming off a torn achilles, his future as an elite corner was up in the air. John Lynch took a chance with the aging vet and brought him to San Francisco.

Initially I wasn’t super hype about the signing. Achilles injuries are tricky, and then when it was reported he had to have another surgery on the opposite heel, my memories of the “ACL all-stars” created a natural bias. Then came the training camp videos of pretty much everyone running by him. It looked like he had on concrete shoes. A lot of us simply shook our heads in disappointment.

I took the time over the last week or so to review Sherman’s season, and really get a feel of what we have with him and what we have to look forward to in 2019. Sherman did well on paper, with solid stats for the season. We saw multiple Pro Football Focus articles about the low QBR results and completion totals against him. I found that a lot of that stemmed from teams simply avoiding his side of the field.

I found this cool site where you can actually search for plays by direction, defensive team, completions, etc. It gave me another perspective as to how teams attacked us. For the most part just like last season when there’s cake on the other side, teams are going to eat it. Last season we thought Ahkello Witherspoon was a stand out pick, as we got similar stats and graphs about him. This neglected the fact that Dontae Johnson was basically a safety cone on the opposite side. Teams didn’t throw at Witherspoon because they didn’t have to. The same thing happened this season. Teams didn’t throw at Sherman for the most part because they didn’t have to. Why test the deep waters of Lake Sherman, when the kiddie pool on the other side of the field was an easy swim.

Bad Sherman

Sherman had a hard time this season covering specific routes. Mainly deep routes, out breaking routes, and stop/curl routes. Some of this could be based on his leg injury, some could be related to old age, and some of it simply could be scheme related. The calling card of Saleh’s defense is limiting big plays. It’ll give up plays in front to prevent plays over the top. Here’s some examples.

Versus Tampa Bay. Poor jam, and then he’s simply out run by Mike Evans for the easy completion.

Versus New York. Based on the zone coverage, Sherman is reading Eli Manning and also covering Odell Beckham Jr. at the same time. OBJ knows this so he keeps pressing Sherm until he commits to the deep route. Sherman has the deep third in this cover three look so he can’t allow OBJ to get behind him. OBJ breaks off the route and Sherm is slow to react.

Versus Minnesota. First game I expected some rust. I also noticed in this game he started lining up head on but as the game and the season progressed he changed the way he lined up. I can assume he realized he doesn’t have the wheels and you’ll see from the clips in some of the later games in the season, Sherman began to line up basically already in a bail out position. Rarely did he face a WR squarely as the season went on. In this clip he initially does a good job getting his hands on Stephon Diggs. Anticipating the deep route Sherman begins to turn up the field, it’s at that point however that Diggs breaks off the route. Sherman gets spun around and is out of position. It was a tough cover, made even tougher by the circumstances I listed at the beginning.

Versus Arizona. Sherman misses the jam and is run by almost at the snap. He recovers well but an accurate throw would’ve led to a solid completion.

Versus Arizona. Again in this clip you see he start square but eventually turns to the bail out position. Not really sure what coverage this is on this play. I thought because of Sherman backing off into the deep third and watching the QB it was cover three, but the safety is far too shallow. Then again Sherman lets the WR get all the way up on him like it’s man, so I’m not sure. Sherman reads the QB and tries to anticipate that the WR is going deep. The WR instead stops and Sherman is slow to recover.

Good Sherman

Sherman excelled at in breaking routes. Even when teams completed the few passes to the inside against him, he was in position for the quick tackle. Sherman tore his right Achilles, so on the out and stop routes usually the right foot would be his plant leg. However on in breaking routes he could push off with his left leg which wasn’t injured. Also Sherman would line up facing inside already so he wouldn’t have to turn his hips to go inside he could simply just change direction. Sherman also plays the overall zone scheme well. His experience in Seattle made it an easy transition. He quickly diagnosis plays and makes solid tackles. Let’s take a look at some examples.

Versus New York. He starts facing inside, and quickly reads the slant coming, he breaks in and causes OBJ to drop the pass.

Versus Arizona. Although he initially misses the jam. He recovers well enough to tackle the WR as soon as he catches the ball. Sherman is all over the WR and you couldn’t really ask for more from a coverage aspect.

Versus Green Bay. This is a really difficult play. He is basically at a stand still about 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, and the WR is running right at him full speed and then breaks inside. Sherman is able to break inside with the WR and cover him well enough to make Aaron Rodgers hold the ball and get sacked. He’s a little handsy but as a vet he won’t be called.

Versus New York, we’re in a cover two zone. Sherman has the flat/curl area of the field. Watching the QB he doesn’t follow the WR into the deep part of the field. Which is where Eli is looking, trying to bait the defense. Once Eli dumps the ball to Saquon Barkley in the flat, Sherman closes quickly and makes a solo tackle. We saw last season that was really hard to do against Barkley.

Versus Arizona. Sherman is lined up covering the tight end on his side of the field. Here’s a great veteran play. He notices that the guy he’s suppose to cover stays inside to block. Sherman knows he’s unaccounted for and blitzes the QB for the sack. I’m sure this wasn’t the defensive play call but Sherman’s veteran instincts made this play.

Versus Green Bay. I know I said Sherman struggled with deep routes this season but not all is lost. He can in fact cover go routes, but he’s going to have to be physical off the line and be able to stack the WR, while using the sideline as another defender like he does in the clip below.

Versus Arizona. Similar situation. He’s able to jam effectively and slows the faster WR. He then basically stay on top of the WR and prevents him from running by him.

Versus Arizona. Sherman’s veteran play also saved a few touchdowns and deep plays. As was a common theme last season, safeties ended up out of position leading to wide open completions. Witherspoon on the opposite side wasn’t always able to recognize these busts early enough to try and adapt. Sherman however would see these things coming and did his best compensate. In this clip we’re either in a cover two or a cover four. Either way Sherman is expecting the middle safety Antone Exum to cover the deep inside. Exum however is pulled away by slot WR, who runs at Exum, and then slants across the field. Sherman is able to recover and make the tackle but not stop the completion.

Versus Arizona. Not sure why we’re playing any sort of zone in the red zone. It again appears to be a cover four look with the four defensive backs all covering a fourth of the field. The problem occurs when the slot WR breaks outside. Jaquiski Tartt leaves his zone and trails the WR outside into Sherman’s zone. The outside WR then breaks in, where Tartt was supposed to be and is wide open. Thankfully Sherman recognizes the bust and is able to get in position to somewhat defend the pass.

Considering Sherman was coming off two lower leg surgeries his season was a success. Opposing teams stayed away from him for the most part — sometimes because he was simply in the right position and other times simply out of respect. I’d expect him to be better this coming season at changing directions now that he’s a full year from recovery, and also he will have a full offseason program.

I think the piece that doesn’t come up on the film is how he was basically another secondary coach in the locker room and on the field. I believe that asset was a much-welcome bonus. I also think he helped the team fight through the tough times. The competition at corner next year aims to be a tough one. Is it possible that Sherman gets beat out by one of the young corners on the squad? Could Sherman be the answer at safety? Most corners as they get up in age make the natural transition, like Charles Woodson, or Ronnie Lott. The 49ers have a long off season to consider all of their options and I hope in some capacity Sherman remains with the team. Go Niners!