News & Analysis

49ers' Richard Sherman selected as PFF's top coverage defender for 2019

Super Bowl LIV will take place in Miami in just under two weeks, and it 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 has been able to get back this level after suffering a torn Achilles as late into his career as he did is remarkable. We recently named him as 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 he just topped 90.0 in terms of coverage grade. If you add in his postseason play, his grade actually goes up and tops 90.0 overall. This represents the fourth season of his career in which he has topped 90.0 overall for the season, but it's the first time he has achieved that feat since 2014.

Richard Sherman: PFF grades since 2011 (including postseason)
Season Team PFF Grade PFF Grade rank
2019 49ers 90.2 1/128
2018 49ers 68.9 51/125
2017 Seahawks 77.1 27/125
2016 Seahawks 79.3 16/125
2015 Seahawks 79.9 5/125
2014 Seahawks 90.5 3/124
2013 Seahawks 90.2 1/118
2012 Seahawks 92.2 1/114
2011 Seahawks 78.0 13/117

Sherman and Darrelle Revis got into a spat on Twitter recently over how exactly Sherman is deployed compared with the way Revis was once used, but the bottom line is Sherman has likely been the greatest cornerback the game has ever seen for the system he has been used in throughout his career. 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.

Many people 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 they do man, and even those “man-coverage defenses” need their cornerbacks to play some form of zone concept on almost half of their coverage 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. If you add in the postseason, that number actually drops lower than the passer rating of just throwing the ball into the dirt every play instead. He allowed just 52.9% of passes thrown his way to be caught and surrendered only 227 yards all season long — there were cornerbacks who surrendered almost 200 receiving yards in a single game this season, never mind over the whole campaign.

One of the many things that has made Sherman such a perfect fit for the scheme he plays in 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 20-plus yards downfield; he didn’t allow any of them to be caught, and he broke up three of them.

Richard Sherman: Coverage numbers on targets 20-plus yards downfield (2011-2019, postseason play included)
Season Targets Receptions Yards TDs Forced incompletions Passer rating
2019 11 1 65 0 3 12.1
2018 9 3 97 1 2 111.8
2017 12 3 71 1 5 44.8
2016 19 5 132 1 6 51.6
2015 19 5 152 2 10 73.6
2014 21 6 212 1 0 45.4
2013 17 2 65 1 4 23.0
2012 25 8 306 3 5 79.8
2011 18 3 135 2 4 55.8
CAREER 151 36 1235 12 39 48.1

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 try and do.

When he intercepted Kirk Cousins in the playoffs, it was because he knew exactly what Vikings receiver Adam Thielen was running, and he positioned himself in front of that play the whole way. There is very little a receiver can do to shake a corner who simply knows where the pass is going and is playing for it all along. And there is no corner better at anticipating those things than Sherman; it’s a big part of the reason he wasn’t beaten for a catch longer than 25 yards in the regular season.

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 in terms of snaps in coverage per target, and he had the best yards per cover snap figure in the entire league.

There were great seasons from other players this season. Vikings safety Anthony Harris is unlucky to miss out but just had fewer action plays than true number one corners do. Stephon Gilmore was excellent for the New England Patriots for almost the entire year, but his case took a beating with a tough day against DeVante Parker late in the season. The bottom line is that there was nobody as difficult to complete passes on in coverage as Richard Sherman, who once again climbed back to his spot as the top cornerback in football.

Richard Sherman was simply the best coverage defender in the NFL this season, and he more than deserves this award.

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