My attempt to settle the fiery debate, at least for now
Cornerbacks are the hardest players to compare and rank. The better they do their job, the fewer opportunities they get to record stats. League leaders in interceptions and pass deflections can sometimes be the guys quarterbacks love to go after. Even still, it’s hard to argue against the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman being the best corner in 2012. Some have even compared the 2011 fifth-round pick to Darrelle Revis, who missed most of last season with a torn ACL but remains the gold standard for post-Deion cornerbacking.
In recent years advanced statistics have been employed to paint a more accurate picture of cornerbacks by emphasizing targets. But these metrics fall short, as targets are usually a function of what route combinations are called against certain coverages and what receivers are on the field. Besides, how are we supposed to interpret targets? Is a cornerback who gets thrown at zero times but had safety help on every snap better than a corner who gets thrown at seven times but allowed for a safety to dangerously roam free in pass coverage or attack the box? We can’t viably measure this stuff.
The only way to compare two cornerbacks is to watch them on film. This approach has its own limitations, but it’s the closest we can get to ranking the men who play one of football’s most dynamic positions. It’s what I did when I set out to answer a question that has been endlessly debated in the football world: Who’s better, Sherman or Revis?
I watched and charted two of Sherman’s games from last season, against the Patriots in Week 6 and the Bills in Week 15. I did the same for Revis when he played those teams in 2011 (Pats in Week 6, Bills in Week 12). The samples work well because New England and Buffalo each had the same spread, pass-oriented offensive systems in both seasons.
I invented two stats for organizational purposes. One is solo stops—when the corner alone prevented his receiver from getting open. The other is solo stifles—when the corner’s coverage negatively impacted the quarterback’s progressions. These are fairly subjective stats (it’s the nature of watching film) which is why my broader focus centered around what each player was asked to do and how well he executed his assignments. Here’s what I saw:
Revis is a true man-to-man defender. He played press-man or mirror technique (press without a jam) on 26 of 41 downfield pass plays (some were negated due to penalty). He played off-man on another 10 of those plays. He lined up in accordance with where a particular opponent lined up. Against the Patriots, Revis faced Wes Welker on 23 pass plays (10 outside, 13 in the slot), Deion Branch on 14 plays (13 outside, one in the slot) and someone else (or zone) on the handful of remaining plays.
I counted 12 combined solo stops and stifles for Revis. All of the stifles came against Welker, who managed only one catch against Revis, for four yards on a crossing route in a two-minute drill. (Welker did have a 72-yard catch-and-run early in the third quarter, but that resulted from Eric Smith biting hard on play-action from his single-high safety spot in Cover 3.)
What stood out more than Revis’s stops was the action that did not occur around him. He was thrown at only twice. When he guarded Branch, Tom Brady didn’t even look in that direction, as if Branch ceased to exist. What’s more, when Revis was in solo coverage, the Jets safeties and linebackers often devoted their full attention elsewhere. This is a significant impact that no stat can illuminate. It’s one thing for a corner to win one-on-one matchups; it’s an entirely different thing for him to be trusted so much that his teammates don’t even bother thinking about his side of the field. With Revis out there, the field shrunk for the other 10 defenders. Think that didn’t make Rex Ryan a better defensive game-planner?
That was the main difference between Revis and Sherman, who found himself in some genuine one-on-one matchups but also benefitted plenty from natural help. This was often a function of the Seahawks’ scheme. While the Jets played a lot of man coverage, Pete Carroll ran a ton of 3-over, 4-under zone (Sherman, Brandon Browner and free safety Earl Thomas being the 3-over defenders).
Sherman rarely matched up against a specific Patriot. He played 51 of his 57 downfield pass plays from his usual boundary position. (He lined up inside only when the Patriots were in 3 x 2 empty sets with a running back split wide.) I counted eight solo stops, two zone/help stops and four solo stifles. But Brady did not fear Sherman the way he feared Revis, throwing at him five times (there were also two occasions where Sherman was beat but the ball was not thrown). Those five attempts, however, did minimal damage; on one play Sherman easily out-positioned Branch for a downfield interception.
In the end, comparing cornerbacks comes down to the old-fashioned eyeball test. As pure physical specimens, Revis looked better than Sherman.
While Sherman primarily played the defensive left boundary last season, he adopted a quasi-Revis role against the Bills. With Browner suspended, the Seahawks had Sherman shadow wideout StevieJohnson, mostly using press-man. He performed well. I credited Sherman with four solo stops and three solo stifles on the 16 relevant downfield pass plays (garbage-time plays weren’t counted to avoid skewing the numbers).
However, there’s an important “yeah but.” Three times against the Bills, Sherman played true press-man from the slot position. Defending the slot is a completely different challenge than guarding the boundary, because there’s substantially more room for a receiver to operate. Sherman’s lack of refinement here was evident when Johnson torched him for a 20-yard touchdown. On that play, Sherman failed in his jam and then got beat early by a redirect move to the outside.
Revis struggled a little more against the Bills than he did against the Patriots. He shadowed Johnson every snap (except for a few prevent coverage concepts near the end). Johnson caught eight passes, including seven of nine when he was battling Revis one-on-one. (There were two other occasions when Johnson beat Revis but wasn’t targeted.)
Again, we have to put these numbers in the proper context. Even solo stops and solo stifles can be influenced by factors that have nothing to do with Revis and Sherman. Perhaps Sherman wasn’t asked to play true isolation man coverage all the time because Seattle’s coaches didn’t believe their other defensive backs could handle the man-to-man responsibilities, or the altered zone spacing that would have been required? Maybe the Bills would have preferred to send Johnson on deeper routes but didn’t think he could shake Revis, so they settled for shorter hooks. There are a lot of things we can’t know.
This is why, in the end, comparing cornerbacks comes down to the old-fashioned eyeball test. As pure physical specimens, Revis looked better than Sherman, showing fluid change-of-direction for someone with his thick build. Sherman, though not stiff, took more time and had to cover more ground in transitioning in and out of his breaks. Sherman didn’t quite have the comfort with mirror technique to consistently dominate without his hands. There was also a firm, subtle strength behind Revis’s physicality. He didn’t have to exert himself; the strength was just naturally there when he needed it. Sherman was very deliberate in his physicality. We’ll know in time whether the 28-year-old Revis can be the same player coming off ACL surgery, but based on available game film, he’s the better corner. Of course, Sherman is only 25 and still developing his game, which means this discussion could have a very different tenor at this time next year. Or even in the coming weeks.
SUNDAY SLATE: GAME-BY-GAME ANALYSIS
Patriots @ Bills
Much is being made about Tom Brady entering this season with none of his top five receivers from a year ago. But third-year running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen still remain, and that may be all that matters for the opener. The Patriots have averaged 171 rushing yards in their last six contests against the Bills, a large chunk of which came from a no-huddle approach against Buffalo’s undersized dime defense. It’s a scheme that previous Bills defensive coordinators employed against New England’s potent dual tight end formations, but with no Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski, the Pats may have to go three or even four wide to see dime from new coordinator Mike Pettine. However they do it, expect the Patriots to unleash power runs against those sub defenses.
Falcons @ Saints
This has been one of the better division rivalries in pro football in recent years, largely because New Orleans’ offense and Atlanta’s defense are so schematically diverse and well-coached. The Saints passing game is built around routes that attack the seams and middle of the field. For defenses, a great way to combat this is with post-snap safety movement. And safety movement just happens to be the backbone of Falcons D coordinator Mike Nolan’s scheme. In their Week 13 meeting last season, the Falcons baited Drew Brees into five interceptions. Three of them were by safeties (William Moore had two, Thomas DeCoud had one) and involved a basic but effective postsnap rotation from two-high to single-high zone. Brees should be better prepared this time around. The last matchup came on a Thursday night, so he had about two and a half days to prepare. He’s had four months to prepare for the opener.
Titans @ Steelers
With free agent pickup Shonn Greene providing a much-needed power complement to the speedy Chris Johnson, and with two new guards (10th overall pick Chance Womack and ex-Bill Andy Levitre), the Titans have been trumpeting a renewed commitment to running the ball. That commitment will be tested right away. The Steelers allowed just 90.6 rushing yards per game last season, second best in the NFL. Assuming new starting nosetackle Steve McLendon can replace Casey Hampton, the Titans will find themselves plenty of second-and-long situations. Will offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains stick with the ground attack in those situations?
Two questions will be answered when St. Louis has the ball: what will Arizona’s 3-4 defense look like under new coordinator Todd Bowles, and how will the Rams use wideout Tavon Austin? St. Louis played it close to the vest in the preseason, sticking primarily with vanilla tactics. Don’t be surprised if they show a new spread system on Sunday, with Austin being the featured, movable piece.
Bengals @ Bears
Chicago’s only apparent defensive weakness is at nickelback after Kelvin Hayden’s season-ending torn hamstring left fringe backup Zackary Bowman, mediocre Texans castoff Sherrick McManis and untested 2012 sixth-round pick Isaiah Frey as the only options. Fortunately for the Bears, the Bengals are without their primary slot weapon, Andrew Hawkins, who is still sidelined with a badly sprained ankle. That means we’ll see an even heavier dose of the two tight end sets that are expected to redefine Cincy’s offense in 2013. Coordinator Jay Gruden’s system will be predicated on trying to create one-on-one matchups for Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham against linebackers. There should be plenty on Sunday, as the zone-based Bears have always leaned heavily on backers in coverage.
Vikings @ Lions
When these teams met in Week 4 last year, the story was how Minnesota’s back seven defenders continuously laid wood to Detroit’s receivers. It wasn’t hard to do. The Vikings use a simple, familiar two-high zone scheme because they want their defenders to play with aggressive downhill speed that at times borders on recklessness. The less thinking there is, the faster defenders can play. The Lions’ offense, with its minimal presnap motion and shifts, rarely gives defenses a lot think about. This isn’t to say the Vikings will pummel the Lions on Sunday. But Vikings defenders will have little trouble finding their comfort zone.
Dolphins @ Browns
A battle between the two forgotten rookie quarterbacks of 2012: Miami’s Ryan Tannehill and Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden. Both are better than people realize. Tannehill has underrated mobility (not just as a runner but also as an out-of-pocket passer). Weeden is more methodical (read: less athletic) but has good arm strength on deep-intermediate throws and the willingness to stand firm and use it when the pocket is crumbling.
Raiders @ Colts
The Raiders cut Darrius Heyward-Bey in March, but it’s hard to call this a revenge game for the former first-round pick. In his four years wearing silver and black, Heyward-Bey made roughly $32.9 million while catching 140 passes. That translates to 35 receptions per year and $235,000 per reception. Heyward-Bey has improved in recent years, and Colts QB Andrew Luck may even view him as reliable, given that the Colts quarterback threw to a receiving corps that finished second in the league in drops last season.
Bucs @ Jets
Everyone expects Darrelle Revis to shadow Santonio Holmes, but don’t be surprised if he often lines up opposite Stephen Hill or Jeremy Kerley. While waiting to see how effective he is coming off reconstructive knee surgery, the Bucs may have Revis shadow No. 2 receivers while rolling safety help over the top against No. 1 wideouts. Just imagine the back pages of the New York tabloids if Darrelle Revis intercepts Geno Smith.
Chiefs @ Jaguars
There should be plenty of action on the right side of Kansas City’s offensive line. First overall pick Eric Fisher will make his NFL debut at right tackle, and he’ll be going up against former first-rounder Tyson Alualu, who is debuting as a full-time defensive end.
Seahawks @ Panthers
The best player matchup of the weekend might be found in this game: Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly against Seattle QB Russell Wilson. The Panthers will almost certainly play a single-high zone on the vast majority of snaps, which will afford Kuechly the opportunity to keep his eyes on Wilson.
Packers @ 49ers
Esteemed coordinator Dom Capers kept the Packers defense in man-to-man coverage against San Francisco in the divisional round of the playoffs last season, which meant players were running with receivers and away from the ball with their backs facing the line of scrimmage. It allowed Colin Kaepernick to rush for 181 yards, most ever by a quarterback in a game.
Capers doesn’t have to overcorrect his mistake by employing zone coverages. Many of his sub-packages have hybrid coverage concepts, with man on the outside and zone on the inside. But will he get to use them? The 49ers are predominantly a base personnel offense; even most of their passing game comes out of run looks. That may compel the Packers to play their base 3-4, in which they’re more predictable. In the past, Capers could choose more creative nickel package against base personnel because slot corner Charles Woodson was so good at providing run support. Though young and talented, the secondary no longer has a unique force like Woodson.