The marquee matchup Sunday is going to be Michael Thomas, the NFL’s best receiver this season, against Richard Sherman, the second or third best cornerback in the league.
On paper, this spells disaster for San Francisco. Thomas is 26 years old and in his fourth year, growing better exponentially and a legitimate candidate for MVP, an honor no wide receiver has ever received. Not even Jerry Rice. Thomas has 110 catches and 1,290 yards this year — with four games left.
Despite a storied career, Sherman is 31 years old and returning from an Achilles tear that led Seattle to cut him simply.
But don’t count out the old man, not yet. He’s having a monster season himself.
“But Mark,” you ask. “Sherman has the advantage of a great defensive line pressuring quarterbacks and good safeties, how is that a fair comparison?”
Well, he’ll have that same defensive line and those same safeties helping out against the Saints. The counter, of course, is that Thomas has a Hall of Fame quarterback and a great offensive line helping him out too.
To be fair, though, Thomas did just as well with Teddy Bridgewater at QB when Brees was hurt and is racking up those big numbers with a handful of dirty bar towels filling the Saints’ other receiving positions. Defenses know the ball will go to Thomas, and they still can’t stop him.
If there is one weakness in Thomas’ game, it’s that he is not much of a deep threat. His longest catch is 42 yards, and he only has six longer than 25 yards. Compounding that, he only has six touchdown receptions this year; ten players have more, and he is in a ten-way tie for 11th.
Thomas works relentlessly in the 15-20 yard range, and it might be even shorter this game. Saints coach Sean Payton will likely emphasize the quick passing game, given the Niners’ fearsome pass rush and injuries to three of the Saints’ offensive line starters.
Guard Andrus Peat is out while left tackle Terron Armstead (ankle) and G Will Clapp (elbow) are questionable. Normally you’d expect Armstead to play through pain in such an important game, but the Saints signed tackle Michael Ola this week, indicating that Armstead’s uncertain status is legitimate. Clapp didn’t practice Friday, either; another bad sign for him.
So the obvious strategy for Sherman is contained Thomas, rather than attempting to shut him down. Let him get his 8, 12, 14-yard targets, and make sure he’s tackled quickly if Sherman is on an island.
Given the predictability of Thomas as a target, bracket coverage with someone else making plays on the ball — or Sherman playing the ball while a safety focuses on tackling — should be an effective way to stop stymie New Orleans’ offense.
The biggest risk for Sherman maybe not Thomas, but the officials. Number 25 picked up a lot of shaky penalties this season, as his foul-first-and-often reputation from Seattle’s Legion of Boom seems to have caught up with him.
If Sherman gets penalized too much, or his film study and field intelligence can’t overcome the youngster’s advantage in speed, the Niners have the luxury of an excellent alternative off the bench.
Emmanuel Moseley does not have nearly the experience and craftiness of Sherman’s game, but he’ll get much more sympathy from the officials for that very reason. And he’s been a top ten cornerback this year when filling in for Akhello Witherspoon.
It’s all you, Sherman.