Inside Richard Sherman's pick-six, a play that could define two seasons
Every Tuesday this season, SI senior writer Austin Murphy will choose a single significant play from the previous weekend, then take an in-depth look at that snap, talking to players and coaches about what it meant, and why it mattered.
He is on the phone to discuss the pick-six that saved Seattle's bacon in the fourth quarter against Houston last Sunday, but Richard Sherman would also like to clear up a certain misconception.
Asked if there had been much extracurricular dialogue between him and Texans Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson on Sunday, Sherman seemed slightly offended. "We didn't have much conversation at all, to tell you the truth. It was a nice battle. We ended up trading jerseys after the game."
Feeling misunderstood, he goes on: "I don't talk much, period. I think people put a little too much emphasis on that, and I'm starting to get frustrated by it, because people act like I'm talking trash the whole game. I'm not talking trash the whole game."
He didn't have much to say with 2:40 left to play in Reliant Stadium. That's because he was gassed, having just tied the score, 20-all, on a 58-yard interception return up the left sideline, while missing a shoe.
The Texans and their fans had fallen silent for a different reason, having watched the visitors -- who'd done nothing in the first half -- gradually awaken and come to life. In the end, Seattle stole a game Houston appeared to have salted away.
A fifth-round pick out of Stanford in 2011, Sherman has earned a reputation for superb corner play -- and loquacity. If he truly is toning down the verbiage this season, that's fine, because his play is speaking for him. Loudly. His interception on Sunday could end up changing the trajectory of two seasons.
Both Houston and Seattle came into 2013 entertaining justifiable hopes for Super Bowl runs. By keeping the faith through a brutal first half, by grinding and clawing and winning ugly on the road -- something they struggled to do last season -- the Seahawks galvanized their belief in themselves. By serving up his third pick-six of the season, then failing to move the team in overtime, Schaub gave his critics (there are many; some are idiots) more potent ammunition. The Texans aren't thinking postseason right now; they're working to avoid their third straight loss, which could come this Sunday night in San Francisco.
For two quarters against the Seahawks, Schaub sparkled. The visitors, meanwhile, stunk on both sides of the ball. On offense, a trio of backup linemen, forced into action by injuries, struggled to open holes and protect Russell Wilson from J.J. Watt and his marauding fellows. The proud defense that came into the game having yielded 241.7 yards per game had given up 324 by halftime, at which point Seattle trailed 20-3.
"The best thing that happened to us," Carroll said, "was to go in at halftime."
There, they were encouraged to believe they could come back -- "We hadn't shown who we were yet," said Carroll -- and reminded to be patient. "It was about coming back one play at a time, and doing things right," the Seahawks coach said.
In a way, the comeback had started during Friday's practice, when defensive coordinator Dan Quinn called a defense dubbed "Slasher" in a short-yardage situation against the scout team. Backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson faked a handoff, then threw to his fullback in the right flat. Expecting that very pass, Sherman jumped the route, intercepted Jackson's hard, low throw, and ran it back for a touchdown.
Now, late in the fourth quarter in Houston, the NFL's nastiest defense had found its mojo. Four Texans possessions had resulted in four punts. But the Texans were moving. Arian Foster, had just gone over 100 yards, and seemed to be wearing the Seahawks down. With just under three minutes to play, Houston faced a 3rd-and-4 on Seattle's 40. One more first down would put it within range for a field goal that would ice the game.
While Andre Johnson is a future Hall of Famer, he draws a lot of double teams. That's worked out well for tight end Owen Daniels, whose rapport with Texans quarterback Matt Schaub borders on the telepathic. Their problem on this particular snap: Quinn, the Seahawks' first-year DC, was already in both their heads. Anticipating a short play-action pass to the right flat, he sent down the call: Slasher.
"Fantastic call by Dan Quinn," Carroll effused on Monday, "something that he practiced during the week, for a situation just like that."
While Schaub called the cadence, Daniels, split wide to the right, came in motion, lining up a shade inside Andre Johnson in the slot. A second before the snap, strong safety Kam Chancellor cheated up to the line. For him, Slasher means blitz.
Foster had carried the ball on four straight plays. Taking the snap from under center, Schaub took four steps left, faking the handoff to Foster on a stretch play, spun 180 degrees and bootlegged right, looking for Daniels. Instead, he saw Chancellor, roaring in unblocked and getting very large in the windshield. Instead of eating the ball, Schaub -- who'd already taken four sacks -- made his worst decision of this young season.
After a few strides in Johnson's slipstream, Daniels put a foot in the ground, cutting hard to the outside. A savvy veteran, he's usually adept at creating separation. But Sherman read him like a Denny's menu.
In addition to his speed and toughness, Carroll praised Sherman on Monday for his football IQ. "He studies well, he's really smart, the game makes sense to him. He learns as the game goes on from things that are happening." If you are a quarterback and make a mistake, he concluded, "he's really apt to make you pay."
With Chancellor all up in his grille, Schaub lofted a pass that really needed to be a dart, a bullet. But this one floated. Daniels tried to come back to the ball, and actually did get his hands on it. But Sherman, coming around from the outside, wrested it from him.
"If he'd seen me, he would've played the ball differently," recalled Sherman. "But I kinda snuck up on him."
While he couldn't come up with the ball, Daniels, in falling to the turf, did peel off Sherman's left shoe, a trifling imbalance that failed to slow Sherman as he accelerated toward the end zone, past Carroll, who celebrated manically on the sideline, and trailed by a convoy of linebackers. Afterward, Sherman speculated that this was the longest one-shoed interception return in NFL history, puckishly instructing reporters to "check that."
By this time he'd already exchanged jerseys with Johnson. "We had a good battle," recalled Sherman. "It was a mutual respect thing." His fellow Pro Bowler had caught nine balls for 110 yards. But Sherman won his share, as well. He made Houston pay.