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Pressing the issue

Posted Oct 24, 2012

When the Seahawks face the Lions on Sunday, they’ll have two cornerbacks who can look almost eye-to-eye with 6-foot-5 receiver Calvin Johnson in the tandem of Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman.


From Dennis Erickson, to Mike Holmgren, to Jim Mora, previous coaches of the Seahawks not only talked about playing more press coverage, they had their cornerbacks practice the tactics during offseason workouts.

But at the first snap in a real game, the corners would turn and bail into playing off the opposing receivers.

That has changed the past season and half under Pete Carroll, as a huge strength of the Seahawks’ No. 5-ranked defense is the ability of Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman to play Cover One on the corners.

So, which came first: Wanting to play aggressively on the corners, or getting the corners that can do it?

“We’ve played a lot of that type of defense throughout the years, but it helps having these corners for sure,” Rocky Seto, the Seahawks’ defensive passing game coordinator, said Wednesday after practice. “These are two special corners that we have, so we’re really blessed to have these guys.”

Seto also coached under Carroll for nine seasons at USC before following him to Seattle in 2010, so he knows more than just a little about the way his boss likes to play defense.

“It’s hard to do,” Seto said. “But these guys are unique corners that we have. How big they are. How long they are. And they really study their craft.”

HERE'S THE CATCH

The Seahawks have held some of the best receivers in the game in check in their first seven games, thanks in large part to the efforts of cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. Now comes the Lions’ Calvin Johnson. Here’s a look at the production of the top receivers they’ve already faced:

Player, TeamNo.Yds.Avg.TDPro Bowls
Larry Fitgerald, Cardinals 4 63 15.8 0 6
Miles Austin, Cowboys 5 63 12.6 1 2
Greg Jennings, Packers 6 35 5.8 0 2
Danny Amendola, Rams 5 55 9.2 1 0
Steve Smith, Panthers 4 40 10.0 0 5
Wes Welker, Patriots 10 138 13.8 1 4
Michael Crabtree, 49ers 4 31 7.8 0 0

This week, the 6-foot-4 Browner and the 6-3 Sherman are studying one large opponent while preparing for Sunday’s game against the Lions in Detroit: Calvin Johnson, a 6-5, 236-pounder who led the NFL in receiving yards last season.

Matching that kind of size with the size and length of Browner and Sherman has to help.

“You would think we’re as equipped as we can be,” Seto said. “We like our matchups.”

Johnson had all the matchup he could handle in the Lions’ 13-7 loss to the Bears in Chicago on Monday night. Bears cornerback Charles Tillman held Johnson to three receptions for 34 yards, and he didn’t catch his first pass until there were six minutes remaining in the third quarter.

But that game also showcased another fact: Quarterback Matthew Stafford will throw Johnson the ball even when he is covered, allowing – and expecting – the player who goes by “Megatron” and graces the cover of Madden 13 Football to find a way to make the catch. Stafford targeted Johnson 11 times against the Bears, and had gone Johnson’s way 12 times in each of the previous four games.

“The problem is that they throw it to him whether he is covered or not, and he just goes up and makes plays,” Carroll said. “He can do all the stuff; he’s got the whole route tree available to him. Where he’s most dangerous is when they throw it up and he goes up and makes his plays – especially when you’re defending the play and he still wins.

“He’s already famous for all of that in the early part of his career.”

The Lions also move Johnson around. On one snap, he’ll be the flanker. On the next, he’s at split end. When they go with three or four receivers, he’ll be in the slot.

“They put him all over to get the matchup that they want,” Carroll said. “So we won’t be able to control all of that.”

But few defenses are able to throw two corners like Browner and Sherman at Johnson, regardless of where he might be before the snap.

Browner made the team last year after playing the previous four seasons for the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL, and ended up playing in the Pro Bowl after intercepting six passes and posting 23 passes defensed. Sherman was a fifth-round draft choice last year, and only got into the starting lineup after Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond were lost to season-ending injuries. But in 10 starts, he intercepted four passes and had 17 passes defensed.

This season, Sherman has three interceptions and 11 passes defensed, while Browner has two picks. And, with the exception of the Patriots’ Wes Welker in Week 6, they’ve helped hold the opposition’s leading receivers to below-average numbers (see chart).

It’s because the Seahawks have their corners challenge the receivers. Not just off the line, but all the way down the field and especially at the point of the catch – or incompletion, as has often been the case.

“That’s our style of play,” Browner said. “Some guys don’t like to be in press (coverage). I know some guys that like to be off. They’re more confident in their quick speed and getting in and out of their breaks. We’re not the quickest of guys, so being in a guy’s face and pressing him up is more our style of play.

“I saw when I first got here that they wanted to go a little bigger and press guys up, just from their draft picks. So I could see that was the style of cornerback they were looking for.”

And have found, after all these years, in Browner and Sherman.

Back down from the challenge that is matching up with Johnson? Not these guys. It’s not in their DNA, or mindset.

“Most definitely you get up for these types of games,” Browner said. “You get up for every game, but this is one of those guys you want to do well against for sure.”

Johnson’s numbers are down this season (38 catches for 592 yards and only one touchdown), and Sherman thinks he knows why.

“You just have to play your normal defense against him,” Sherman said. “People aren’t putting as much emphasis as they did before when going against him. The best way to play him is just straight up. You start getting away from your defense, they can hit you with so many other things.

“If we keep it about what we do and if we play our style of football and play disciplined and do our jobs, then we should come out with the result that we desire.”

Told of their comments, Seto smiled before offering, “That’s kind of how we look at it. It’s more like you cherish the opportunity to play these types of players. So we embrace it.”

And they’ll do it this week with the long arms of Browner and Sherman.

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