Over the past few years, Richard Sherman has become one of the central figures in the Seahawks-49ers rivalry. Yes, part of that has to with some occasional trash talk, but more than anything, Sherman is public enemy No. 1 in the Bay Area because of the he dominated the 49ers and quarterback Colin Kaepernick as Seattle took a significant upper hand in the rivalry starting late in the 2012 season.
Beginning with a 42-13 victory in Week 16 of the 2012 season, Kaepernick's first start against the Seahawks, Seattle has won five of six regular-season meetings between the two teams plus an NFC championship game. And in that time, Sherman has intercepted Kaepernick four times, a total that doesn't include his most memorable play against the 49ers, the tip to Malcolm Smith that secured a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII.
On Thursday, however, Sherman was a thorn in Colin Kaepernick's side for another reason. Instead of taking Kaepernick's ball away, Sherman spent all night taking away one of his best targets, shadowing receiver Torrey Smith throughout the game.
A week after catching three passes for 96 yards, including a 76-yard touchdown, Smith was shut out by Sherman. Kaepernick, it seems, learned his lesson about taking shots down the field in Sherman's direction, but by avoiding him, and as a result his best playmaker as well, Kaepernick and the 49ers offense accomplished very little, gaining just 142 total yards and 8 first downs.
"That's what they asked me to do," Sherman said of Thursday's assignment. "Like I always say, whatever I'm asked to do is what I'm going to do. They asked me to take care of Torrey and follow him around, so that's what I tried my best to do."
There have been exceptions, but for most of his career, Sherman has stayed at left cornerback regardless of where an opponent's top target might line up, something that has worked very well for Seattle's defense, but that has also provided ammunition for his critics.
This season, however, more is being asked of Sherman than ever before, so even if he is without an interception through seven games, he is as important to Seattle's defense as ever. In the week leading up to the season opener at St. Louis, Sherman found out he was going to take on nickel-cornerback duty against the Rams, and he handled that new job well. Against Cincinnati, Sherman spent most of the game shadowing A.J. Green and helped neutralize the Pro Bowl receiver, then on Thursday he again took away an opponent's most dangerous weapon.
"Absolutely he has (taken on more this year)," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "We haven't been able to take advantage of him working in the nickel spot, but that's an illustration of that exactly. The best part it mentally is he's so up for the challenge of all those kinds of thing. We can do just about anything you can do with a corner with Richard."
As Sherman always says when the topic of him shadowing an opposing team's No. 1 receiver comes up, he's just going to do what his coaches ask of him, but at least some teammates hope to see more of Sherman moving around this season.
"I hope, I hope in my heart they keep having him cover the No. 1 receiver," safety Earl Thomas said. "It makes things more smooth, because he's a lock-down corner. He understands what's going on."
The flip side of moving one cornerback around to match up with a specific receiver is that it can be a blow to the ego of the other starting corner, in this case Cary Williams. But Thomas notes that an important part of Seattle's defensive success when Sherman does shadow one receiver is the way Williams has been professional and handled whatever his assignment might be.
"I think we played really, really good football," Thomas said. "People don't understand Cary Williams… a lot of guys would be like, 'You're not taking me off the No. 1 receiver.' Very humble guy, he's a team player."
How the Seahawks decide to use Sherman going forward remains to be seen, but what is evident this year more than ever is that he is up for whatever challenge comes his way.
"Sherman just does his thing," safety Kam Chancellor said. "He's going to play good coverage, he's going to do his job, whatever it is on defense. Quarterbacks just don't want to go at him because he's dangerous over there."