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For Richard Sherman, it’s mind over matter that matters most

Posted Jan 8, 2014

Despite his obvious physical attributes and skills, when discussing what makes Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman as good as he is those asked started with his mindset and attention to detail.


This was intended to be the anatomy of an All-Pro cornerback, with Richard Sherman as the consummate model.

Ask half a dozen people what one trait stands out most about Sherman’s ample game, get four or five different answers and create the envisioned composite.

The intention, however, was intercepted – which seems only fitting when the subject has more interceptions (20) and passes defensed (60) than any player in the league since the 2011 season, and this season had eight picks to become only the second player in franchise history to lead the NFL in interceptions.

From his defensive coordinator, to his position coach, to his All-Pro partner in the secondary, to scouts who scrutinize every player in the league, they went for Sherman’s intelligence and mental approach to the game, rather than his obvious array of physical gifts.

“Everything that Richard has accomplished, it’s a testament to being where you’re supposed to be,” said Kris Richard, the Seahawks’ defensive backs coach who played cornerback for the team from 2002-04. “That’s when the good plays typically happen. It’s not because you made anything happen.

“What did you create? You didn’t create anything. You didn’t call the play. You didn’t know the play was happening. You put yourself in position, however, by staying true to who we are, putting yourself on top in lead position and then allowing the offense to challenge you. Then if the offense is challenging you, if you have yourself in position more times than not – if you’re gifted, as he is – you’ll come down with the ball.”

AT THE TOP OF HIS GAME

Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman has put up league-leading numbers this season, and since he stepped into the starting lineup midway through his rookie season in 2011:

Interception leaders this season
Player, team No.
Richard Sherman, Seahawks 8
Brandon Boykin, Eagles 6
DeAndre Levy, Lions 6
Antrel Rolle, Giants 6
Earl Thomas, Seahawks 5
Five others also had five  

Passes defensed leaders this season
Player, team No.
Lardarius Webb, Ravens 23
Alterraun Verner, Titans 23
Marcus Cooper, Chiefs 21
Joe Haden, Browns 20
Leodis McKelvin, Bills 20
Richard Sherman, Seahawks  19
Two others also had 19  

Interception leaders since 2011
Player, team No.
Richard Sherman, Seahawks 20
Tim Jennings, Bears 15
Jarius Byrd, Bills 12
Patrick Peterson, Cardinals 12

Passes defensed leaders since 2011
Player, team No.
Richard Sherman, Seahawks 60
Joe Haden, Browns  49
Tramon Williams, Packers 49
Lardarius Webb, Ravens 48

The long-limbed, 6-foot-3 Sherman does have the prerequisite physical tools, and then some. That 6-foot, 5½-inch wingspan. More strength than it would seem he could generate with his 195 pounds. That 4.56-second time in the 40-yard dash, and even quicker feet. That 38-inch vertical leap. Those receiver-like skills to track and catch the ball.

But as one of the Sherman panelists pointed out, it’s one thing to have those skills, but what takes his game to another level are the instincts and awareness to get them going in the right direction.

“When the makeup of the guy is right, and then you match the physical skills, then it’s this krhhhh,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said, punctuating the assessment with the sound and hand gesture of a jet taking off. “When people have the physical skills, but also the strong mindset, it makes for a rare guy. And that’s Richard Sherman.”

And Sherman will need everything that comprises his impressive game in Saturday’s rematch with the New Orleans Saints in a divisional playoff game at CenturyLink Field. Even with the Saints relying more on their running game in recent weeks, including rushing for 185 yards in their wild-card win over the Eagles in Philadelphia last Saturday night, the player who puts the production in the league’s No. 4-ranked offense is quarterback Drew Brees – by distributing the ball to tight end Jimmy Graham (86 receptions for 1,215 yards and a league-leading 16 touchdown catches); wide-outs Marques Colston (75 for 943 and five), Lance Moore (37 for 457 and two) and Kenny Stills (32 for a 20-yard average and five); and running backs Pierre Thomas (77 for 513 and three) and Darren Sproles (71 for 604 and two).

Sherman and the Seahawks’ No. 1-ranked defense snatched the wind from Brees’ usually productive sails in their 34-7 victory in Week 13 at CenturyLink Field, when they held the Saints’ saintly QB to a season-low 147 passing yards and Michael Bennett returned Cliff Avril’s sack-forced fumble for a touchdown.

But back to Sherman and that attempt to create the composite, which turned into a mind-over-matter exercise.

“I would say it’s preparation and overall attention to detail,” Richard, his position coach, said when asked for Sherman’s top trait. “It’s an understanding that he knows he’s got to be technically sound in order to be successful out there on the field. So he has to be focused in on his technique and execution, to go along with the fact that he darn near might have a photographic memory.

“He’s able to retain information really well. And he also has an overall understanding of how offenses are trying to attack not just him but us, in regard to formation and situation. He gets it. He has the big picture back there.”

Asked the same question, Quinn offered, “There are two things than standout about Richard. There’s the competitive drive to always want to back it up, in terms of the style he can play at. He does it in practice. He does it in the games. He brings a really strong mindset to his game, and that’s something that can’t be overlooked. He is a relentless competitor.

“Then, when you’re adding in all the other things, it’s his length and ability to track the ball.”

Trent Kirchner, the Seahawks’ director of pro personnel, said, “It’s being a student of the game and just his length. Those are probably the two biggest things when it comes to Richard. He has the strength to certainly disrupt timing at the line of scrimmage, but I think mostly it’s just being a student of the game.”

Next up was Dan Morgan, the Seahawks’ assistant director of pro personnel and a Pro Bowl linebacker during his career with the Carolina Panthers. And his assessment also started with, “He’s pretty much the complete package. But he’s got that attitude and that competitiveness that’s hard to find.”

For an outside perspective, how about Saints coach Sean Payton?

“I think he’s very instinctual. I think he works hard in his preparation, so he’s smart and you can see that in his play,” Payton said. “I think he’s got outstanding ball skills. He’s got the size, the length, obviously the confidence. So you get a unique combination of a lot of things that you would look for in a corner, and he possesses those.”

To understand just how far Sherman has come, it helps to understand where he comes from – and where he’s coming from. This is the kid from Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif., who passed up the chance to play for Seahawks coach Pete Carroll at USC because he wanted to prove that a kid from Compton could not just go to Stanford but graduate from the prestigious institution. This is the player who did not switch from wide receiver to cornerback until his senior season for the Cardinal. This is the player the Seahawks selected in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL Draft, and the one who was forced into the lineup as an injured replacement for an injury replacement midway through his rookie season.

That background as a receiver is evident in the way Sherman tracks the ball, often locking onto the pass before the intended receiver; and sometimes catches it, fully extended along the sideline to grab a pass that is heading out of bounds or reaching down to pilfer a low throw.

“His ball awareness downfield and his ability to get his head around and rotate and high-point balls, it’s second to none out there,” Morgan said. “That’s just instincts; instincts that can’t be taught. It’s just real good feel and he does a great job with it.”

Added Kirchner, “Richard has phenomenal ball skills. He’ll attack the ball; he’s not going to wait for it to come to him.”

That chip Sherman continues to not only wear on his shoulder but flaunt, despite being named All-Pro the past two seasons and voted to his first Pro Bowl this season, is the fuel that stokes his passion.

“We were just talking a few seconds ago about how I respect him so much because he has to prove himself every time he goes out there,” said Earl Thomas, the Seahawks’ two-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowl free safety. “I’m the same way, so I love that. When you can relate to somebody to that level, it’s always going to be a love – a very, very respectful love.

“I respect what Richard does, and I love who he is.”

Then there’s the mental toughness to stay in the game, even when the opposing quarterback is trying to keep you out of the game. Former Pro Bowl cornerback Shawn Springs always said that when he got himself into trouble it was because he’d get bored in coverage and peek into the backfield to see what the passer was up to. There have been many games where Sherman could have allowed himself to drift into the same situation.

“If you’re out there getting bored, you’re making the game more about you than about the team,” said coach Richard, who was a teammate of Springs. “That’s the one thing where you have to absolutely continue to challenge yourself in the fashion where it’s not about you, because we’re counting on you to continue to execute and do your job. The second that you get bored out there is when you leave us hanging out to dry.

“And Richard understands that. He’s not going to allow himself to get lulled. We have a saying in (our meeting room): ‘Be surprised when the ball doesn’t come.’ You have to play as if the ball is always coming to your man; the ball is always coming your way.”

With Sherman, it’s an anticipation that comes with almost always making the play.

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