Let's just get the disclaimer out of the way before we go any further. Neither Richard Sherman nor head coach Pete Carroll, has said whether the Seahawks' All-Pro cornerback will shadow Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones when Seattle hosts Atlanta at CenturyLink Field Sunday, and that will likely remain a mystery until the game begins.
But whether or not Sherman sticks to his usual spot at left cornerback or spends his afternoon moving around to cover Jones throughout the game, those two, who are two of the very best in the NFL at their respective positions, will see plenty of each other when one of the NFL's best offenses faces off against one of the league's top defenses.
And if anyone knows just how good a Jones vs. Sherman matchup could be, it's Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, who before taking that job was the defensive coordinator of the Seahawks for two seasons.
"What the fans should expect is two real dog competitors battling for it," Quinn said. "That's one of the coolest parts of our game when get to compete at the very highest level. It's really two technicians and guys who work at their craft… (Jones) is one of the brightest football minds at his position, he has a real understanding of the game, the coverage, the leverage. And that was one of the things when I first met Sherm that I was most impressed with was his football knowledge and acumen, which has even grown stronger over the years.
"That'll be a classic matchup that we'll be fortunate to be a part of."
While Sherman's standard line whenever this topic comes up is that he's just going to do whatever is asked of him by his coaches, he was aware two weeks ago of Jones' 300-yard game against the Carolina Panthers only a few minutes after the conclusion of Seattle's game against the Jets in which Sherman spent his afternoon shadowing New York's Brandon Marshall.
"I heard Julio went off," Sherman said not long after intercepting Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick twice on passes intended for Marshall. "That'd be fun. Three-hundred? That's what he had? That's going to be a big deal. He's a good friend and it's going to be a fun matchup battling him."
On Wednesday, again without tipping off any plans for this week, Sherman said of being asked to cover a team's top receiver, "It's something that has been fun for me whenever they ask me to do it, whenever the challenge presents itself. It's always their decision, it's not like I get to pick and choose which games I do it, but yeah, it has always been fun to me."
While there is plenty of value in keeping Sherman on one side of the field, even if a team just avoids throwing that direction—taking one third of the field out of a team's passing attack makes a big difference—the Seahawks did start showing a willingness to move Sherman around more often last season, having him shadow receivers like Dallas' Dez Bryant, Cincinnati's A.J Green, Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown and San Francisco's Torrey Smith, and two weeks ago Sherman spent almost the entire game covering Marshall.
"It's all of the circumstances," Carroll said when asked about deciding whether or not to have Sherman move around the field to cover an opponent's top receiver. "It's the players that we're playing against, it's the matchups from our team to their team, it's the next level of guys that we match up against, what's necessary in the game plan, we just take a bucket full of thoughts and decide what seems to fit best."
And making that decision doesn't just affect what Sherman does. If Sherman is going to move around to cover Jones on Sunday, that means right cornerback DeShawn Shead will have to play on both sides of the field, and if Jones lines up in the slot, it would move Jeremy Lane to an outside position. Fortunately for the Seahawks if they choose to go that route, both Shead and Lane have shown the versatility to play all over the field, giving the Seahawks more coverage options.
"It's also not just (Sherman)," Carroll said. "It has to do with the other guys. If the other player is flipping, that's part of the variable also. We're at a point where we can do whatever we need to do now."
Added Sherman: "They've always moved around. J-Lane has played both sides his whole career and been in the slot, and Shead has done the same thing. Shead played the slot half of the season last year, so it's something they've been used to doing."
Regardless of how often Sherman covers Jones on Sunday, the Seahawks have a ton of respect for the All-Pro receiver who ranks third in the league with 517 receiving yards through five games, and who has a league-best 10 catches of 20 or more yards.
"He's a workhorse, whether it's a run play or a pass play, he's going to work," Sherman said. "He's going to be blue collar, he's going to block hard. He'll go between the tackles and block, he'll crack block. Sometimes you see receivers not being asked to do that, but his team asks him sometimes to go block a linebacker, and he'll do the best to do his job, and you can respect that."
And for Carroll, it's hardly a surprise that Jones has emerged as one of the NFL's top receivers, not when he has been such a high-profile player for so long. In fact, Carroll remembers a failed attempt to recruit Jones to USC when Jones was a star receiver in Foley, Alabama.
"He's a great player," Carroll said. "There was a time when we went down to Alabama to go visit him and see if we could have a chance to get recruiting on him. We had a chance to see him in the parking lot, and some people from the school grabbed him and took him into the back room, and before you know it there was an Alabama coach on the way to the campus, and we couldn't even get near the guy at the time. My point is he has been a great player for a long time. He came out as a great one. He's just got marvelous talents, and he's really fast when he gets going down field, and he's a big play-maker and all that. He's just a great player."
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