Richard Sherman leads 49ers into Super Bowl LIV as NFL's top coverage defender

By Sam Monson

Super Bowl LIV will feature one of the game’s best cornerbacks, who is back to something like the peak of his powers, in the form of San Francisco 49ers standout Richard Sherman.

The fact that Sherman got back to this level after suffering a torn Achilles as late into his career (November 2017) as he did is remarkable. We recently named him the best cornerback of the decade, and now he can add our award for the best coverage player at any position to his PFF trophy case.

Sherman finished the regular season with an overall PFF grade of 88.9, and if you add in his postseason play, his grade actually goes up to 90.2. This represents the fourth time in his career he’s topped 90 for the season, but it's the first time since he did so three straight years from 2012 (92.2), 2013 (90.2) and 2014 (90.5).

Sherman and Darrelle Revis got into a Twitter spat recently over how the two have been deployed. The bottom line is that within the context of the system he’s played throughout his career, Sherman has likely been the greatest cornerback the game has ever seen. Revis bounced around a few different schemes (and was markedly less effective in some than others), while Sherman has been consistently elite within the system that suits him so well.

Niners quarterback Richard Sherman is Pro Football Focus' top coverage defender in the NFL in 2019. (Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Many fans act as if the only true form of coverage is man-to-man, but the game has evolved way beyond that. Almost every team in the NFL plays more zone than man, and even those “man-coverage defenses” need their cornerbacks to play some form of zone concept on almost half of their snaps. Add in the fact that the lines have blurred — many man-to-man coverages have help, and many zone shells have plenty of man principles — and collectively, we need to recognize the value of that kind of coverage and stop using it to disrespect elite play.

Schematically, Sherman finds himself on an island plenty of times, and his coverage numbers this season speak for themselves. Over the season, Sherman allowed a passer rating of 46.8 when targeted. He allowed just 52.9 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught and surrendered only 227 yards all season long. For comparison’s sake, there were cornerbacks who surrendered almost 200 receiving yards in a single game this season.

One of the many things that has made Sherman such a perfect fit for the scheme is that he has always protected the defense from the big play over the top. Sherman has been historically difficult to beat deep, and this season was no exception. Though we’ll remember the playoff reception from Davante Adams that sparked the spat with Revis, that play was remarkable because of how rare it is for Sherman. Through 17 weeks of the regular season, he was targeted nine times on passes of 20-plus yards downfield; he didn’t allow any of them to be caught, and he broke up three of them.

Niners cornerback Richard Sherman simply does not get beat deep very often. (Via PFF)

He may not be the fastest player in the league at the position, but he makes up for it with physicality, positioning and an incredible advantage gained from tape study and knowledge of tendencies and what offenses want to do.

The advanced coverage numbers are as impressive as the basic ones when it comes to his season. Sherman went 19.1 snaps in coverage between catches given up, the second-best mark in the league. He was the fourth-least targeted cornerback and had the best yards-per-cover-snap figure in the entire league.

Other defensive backs had great seasons, too, like Vikings safety Anthony Harris and Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore. The bottom line is that nobody was as difficult to complete passes against in coverage as Richard Sherman.

He was simply the best coverage defender in the NFL this season.

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