"Gosh, it’s hard only playing these guys once every four years. I obviously see them a little bit in the preseason. They’re just different body types, different styles. Richard is a big long guy, likes to get his hands on you and be physical. The one thing I can say about both of them is that they both play the ball very well and they have great ball skills. They seem to both be guys that prepare and study what teams do. But they’re different. Again, the guy that plays them once every four years probably can’t give you a fair assessment. But they’re both good players, you have to be smart when you play their side. I just don’t believe you can completely eliminate a side of the field. From my stand point, from a passers point of view, I’m not saying that teams that have decided to do that shouldn’t have, I think it’s hard to do that -- to just play on one side and be real successful."
That's what San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said last Wednesday when the Seattle media asked him about Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson and Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, the dual tests Rivers' Chargers faced in the first two weeks of the 2014 season. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers didn't test Sherman's side of the field in Seattle's 36-16 home-opening win over the Packers, but Rivers had beaten Peterson with his arm and head coach Mike McCoy's route concepts in a frustrating 18-16 opening loss to the Cards, and there was no reason for him to shy away from Sherman, no matter how effective Sherman was in 2013.
And he was very effective in 2013 -- Sherman led the league in interceptions with eight, and allowed just 29 regular-season receptions on 57 targets and 549 passing snaps, per Pro Football Focus. His 36.2 passer rating allowed was by far the league's lowest; New England's Logan Ryan finished second at 53.3. So, it was understandable that Rodgers, as good as he is, preferred to exploit the matchup between Jordy Nelson and Byron Maxwell, Sherman's bookend in Seattle's secondary.
But Rivers had other ideas, and San Diego's plan paid off. In their 30-21 win over the Seahawks last Sunday, Rivers targeted Sherman six times, resulting in four receptions and 54 yards. Sherman's passer rating against is now 95.1 in 2014, and after the game, receiver Keenan Allen added insult to injury.
"All week we said we were going to throw at him because he's not what he's hyped up to be," Allen said. "I just went out and played my game."
Sherman, who refused to speak with the media after the game, responded thusly to charges that San Diego's receivers had "exposed" him.
Well, Sherman had a point ... to a point (even if he did miscalculate the number of receptions he gave up). It wasn't as if the Chargers lit him up; it's just that the standard of performance Sherman has set is so high that it's pretty big news whenever anyone gets a few catches off his back. However, in exploiting Peterson and Sherman, the Chargers have proven that even the best cornerbacks are vulnerable. Both Peterson and Sherman are outstanding trail corners on deep and vertical routes -- throwing a deep fade route on Sherman is basically begging for an interception, and Peterson is as good a lockdown guy on straight routes as anyone in his generation. However -- and this is surprisingly true in Sherman's case -- you can exploit their size and trail speed by running quick angle routes, and that's what affected Sherman so negatively last Sunday.
With 8:33 left in the first quarter, Sherman lined up over Allen at the San Diego 36-yard line, and Allen ran a bit of a pick play in which Sherman, who was rolling back to cover a deeper route, was knocked out of inside adjustment coverage by the presence of linebacker K.J. Wright. This allowed Allen to have a free release inside, and linebacker Bobby Wagner made the tackle after a six-yard gain.
With 13:36 left in the first half, and Seattle up 7-3, the Chargers had the ball at the Seahawks' 20-yard line, and Rivers completed a 14-yard pass to Allen.
Allen started off running the kind of outside vertical route that Sherman can exploit in his sleep, but around the Seattle 10-yard line, he established inside position on Sherman -- basically boxed him out in a pseudo-basketball move -- and linebacker K.J. Wright was too late to the scene to help out. This would be a common theme when Rivers threw in Sherman's direction -- San Diego's receivers would create separation with hand position and quick angles, and Sherman did not respond quickly enough.
None of this is to say that Sherman has let his game get soft and springy; he's still one of the best players in the league, but in exposing this potential flaw in his coverage abilities, the Chargers have given other Seahawks opponents a tell they can use against him. And this Sunday, it will be Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos who get their shot. Sherman is one of the NFL's smartest and hardest-working players, and he uses tape study to make his game as great as it's been, but this is another challenge for a player whose position is always full of contenders, looking to take shots at the man on top.