The text message arrived to Richard Sherman’s phone late on Labor Day, just six days before the Seattle Seahawks opened the season.
The message sent? Sherman needed to start immediately learning the responsibilities and coverages of being the defensive back covering slot wide receivers in Seattle’s defensive scheme.
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"That’s what they told me to do and I do what my coaches tell me to do," Sherman said.
One of the criticisms thrown at Sherman is that he only plays one side of the field. It’s a fact that pundits and fellow players have used when trying to find fault with Sherman’s game.
But there was Sherman in Week 1 against St. Louis lining up not at his normal left cornerback position, but in the slot usually matched up against speedy St. Louis wide receiver Tavon Austin. It was a last-minute request by the Seahawks coaching staff, deciding that Sherman playing in the slot and DeShawn Shead taking over as the outside cornerback in passing situations was the best option against the Rams.
And it sounds like this may be more than just a one week experiment, especially with the challenges Randall Cobb can provide as a wide receiver in the slot when Seattle travels to Green Bay on Sunday night.
"We’re going to use it as it fits, and each week if you ask me I’m not going to tell you," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "But I think it’s a real positive for us, and we’ll investigate it every week and see how it goes, how it fits, and see where we want to use it."
Sherman has established himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL playing on the perimeter and almost exclusively on the left side of Seattle’s defensive alignment. It’s how the Seahawks coaches have chosen to play their cornerbacks, although it’s helped in previous seasons have the likes of Brandon Browner and Byron Maxwell playing opposite Sherman.
Since taking over as a starter in Seattle’s secondary there has been only three times Sherman specifically followed one receiver. He chased around Anquan Boldin with San Francisco and Stevie Johnson with Buffalo during the 2013 regular season and last season matched up on Dez Bryant for the majority of Seattle’s game against Dallas after Maxwell was injured.
According to STATS, Sherman was targeted four times in the opener against the Rams, allowing two receptions for 29 yards.
"Putting Richard inside it allows him to use all of the savvy and the instincts that he has," Carroll said. "He’s a marvelous player in terms of awareness, and vision, and anticipation and all of that, and that position in there does call for those opportunities in zones and all kinds of different things that you do there."
Sherman said the important elements of playing inside are understanding the possible route concepts and where the defender might have an advantage with leverage. Not surprising, Sherman has leaned on his college and pro teammate Doug Baldwin for advice. Baldwin has played both outside and in the slot in Seattle’s offense.
How much Sherman defends the slot receiver on Sunday could be predicated by how aggressive Aaron Rodgers is throwing at Sherman. In the 2014 season opener and again in the NFC Championship game, Rodgers was leery of going after Sherman, even after Sherman suffered an elbow injury in the fourth quarter of the title game and was clearly playing with one good arm.
"I think they’re just taking a great player and utilizing his abilities," Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said. "It makes sense to play him in the slot and get him matched up on a certain receiver. He’s an outstanding player."