The Seattle Seahawks defense and the Michigan State Spartans defense were the darlings of the NFL and NCAA, respectively, in 2013. Despite some schematic differences, these defenses shared important similarities. Both were simple in comparison to their peers, executing their base defense to perfection, allowing their defenders to “play fast” because they had no doubt about their assignments. The defenses were also each led by a breakout performer at cornerback – Richard Sherman for the Seahawks, and Darqueze Dennard for the Spartans.
Contrary to popular belief, neither cornerback is a man to man bump and run player. The Seahawks and Spartans are both zone teams (the Seahawks primarily cover 3, the Spartans primarily cover 4), with the cornerbacks aligned in a press position. They appear to be in man coverage because, if the receiver runs a pattern deeper than 10 yards (approximately), the cornerback stays locked on that receiver in man coverage. If the receiver runs a short pattern, the cornerback is often in position to take this pattern away once the ball is in the air by their pre-snap alignment, which adds to the man to man illusion. But the short patterns are not their responsibility.
This may seem like a minor distinction, but it pays major dividends. Instead of needing to worry about every pattern the receiver might run, the cornerback can focus on re-routing the receiver (helping out all aspects of the defense) and turning and running to take away deep patterns. This is a perfect defense for fast, physical corners such as Sherman and Dennard.
Take Sherman. A tall, lanky track star at cornerback, his theoretical weakness would be against double moves and short, quick patterns. This is because a taller player at cornerback with longer legs has a comparative disadvantage when making quick, fast cuts and redirections.
The Seahawks defense means, however, that Sherman merely needs to use his length to throw the receiver off his pattern, and his speed to turn and run if the receiver runs a deep pattern. His 6’3”, spidery frame, track jump background, and intelligence make him the ideal athlete for this technique.
He also illustrates the Seahawks’ rise to prominence. Much like the Oakland Athletics who Michael Lewis chronicled in Moneyball, the Seahawks found undervalued athletes late in the draft who fit their system to perfection. In Moneyball it was specifically about finding players who had patience at the plate; in Seattle it was about finding tall, physical defensive backs late in the draft who could execute Seattle’s defense. Richard Sherman was a number one overall pick in terms of fit for the Seahawks, though in reality he was picked in the 5th round.
Denard, too, was an underrated prospect who rose to prominence due to a perfect mesh of scheme and athleticism.
No example of this technique is better than Sherman’s game clinching play against the San Francisco 49ers in the 2013 NFC Championship game.
In diagram one (below), we see Sherman lined up in press on Michael Crabtree to the bottom of the screen. On the opposite side, of the field, Byron Maxwell (Seattle’s other big, physical cornerback) is lined up in press on Quinton Patton. Also note that Seattle is in a two high safety alignment, which differs from their base cover 3 look, but is similar to Michigan State’s base alignment.
At the snap of the ball (below), Sherman gets a hand on Crabtree and turns to run with him. It looks like man coverage. But look to the top of the screen. Maxwell is also bailing deep on the play, as if he is covering Patton deep. Patton, unlike Crabtree, stands still at the line of scrimmage. Sherman – while appearing to be in man coverage – knows that if Crabtree stops short, Sherman can continue deep, because linebacker Malcolm Smith is underneath Crabtree’s pattern. Therefore, Sherman can focus all of his attention on sprinting downfield in defense of any deep Crabtree pattern.
The television broadcast camera made it appear that Crabtree had a step on Sherman. This was never the case. As we see below, Sherman was a step ahead of Crabtree the entire play. He has positioned himself perfectly – he will beat Crabtree to the spot should Crabtree continue on a fade (as is the case) and has inside leverage to undercut any deep in breaking pattern (such as a post or dig) that Crabtree might run. His ability to “sell out” on these deep patterns is made possible by the zone principles that let him play without hesitation. We can see Smith – who will catch the interception – dropping in the underneath zone, ready to pounce on a short pattern. He was not occupied on the play by any other receiving threat, allowing him to drift farther back and eventually gather the Sherman’s deflection.
Also note that Maxwell has continued to bail deep (he is actually deeper than Sherman) and is now 14 yards away from Patton, who remained at the line of scrimmage.
Below, we see the moment when Sherman reaches the ball at its highest point, deflecting it to Smith for the game sealing interception. For the television camera, it appeared that Crabtree was behind Sherman. In reality, Sherman found the ball, slowed, and leaped to tip it, creating the illusion that Crabtree was behind him. Make no mistake, Sherman was not beaten on the play.
Cover 3 and Cover 4 press, pattern matching teams require a specific athlete at the cornerback position. The cornerback must be physical and skilled enough to jam a receiver at the line, and fast enough to run with that receiver on all deep patterns. The cornerback does not need the same short legged quickness that is required to guard fast twitch receivers in the short or slot game. This simplified role has allowed Mark Dantonio at Michigan State to build the top defense in the country with many lower tier recruits (Dennard, for example, was a 2 star recruit with no other BCS offers from a tiny high school in Georgia), and for Pete Carroll to build one of the greatest defensive backfields in the history of the NFL out of largely late round and free agent prospects. The ability to play fast breeds confidence, and has helped two elite yet overlooked athletes climb to the top of their game, bringing the rest of their respective defenses with them.