Expect Richard Sherman to cover Martavis Bryant as well as Antonio Brown
Yes, this is a continuation in the national series of feature stories written from media covering the team that the Seattle Seahawks play next. The focus of the series is generally “how Richard Sherman can stop Team X’s stud receiver Guy’s Name.”
This isn’t about the Steelers’ stud receiver Antonio Brown, though. This is about Sherman taking on Martavis Bryant. His deep speed and length make Sherman a better matchup for him, but both Brown and Bryant present challenges to Seattle’s secondary on the same level as the Arizona Cardinals did. They put up 39 points on this defense. Just not all that easily, and not without taking a few targeted risks.
Sherman is really, really good
Regardless of who covers Brown, he’s going to make plays. The only player who’s been able to limit Brown since 2013 has been Mike Vick, the Steelers’ backup quarterback who managed to get Brown 11 catches for 111 yards in two and a half games between Weeks 4-6, when Roethlisberger was out.
When Roethlisberger returned he couldn’t get Brown the ball enough. He has 33 catches on 48 targets — all but three of those from Roethlisberger, who was injured in the fourth quarter of Week 9 against Oakland and missed the first seven plays in Week 10 against Cleveland — for 470 yards and three touchdowns.
Bryant hasn’t been completely absent, although he slumped a bit in Weeks 7-9. He had 10 catches for 178 yards and a touchdown in last week’s win over the Browns.
It’s not a coincidence Brown and Bryant almost always line up on the opposite sides of the field. That’s what their positions — Brown is typically the X receiver and Bryant is typically the Z receiver — dictate. But the key is they’re interchangable.
So, when you see Sherman plastered to his heavily fortified offensive right side, depending on the situation, you can have Brown or Bryant over there.
Cornerbacks can play either man or zone, obviously, but nearly always, if a receiver goes deep to the outside of the cornerback, the defender’s job is to carry him up the field. So in essence, Sherman will play man on either Brown or Bryant, if either one is streaking up past him.
And Sherman is excellent at carrying receivers up the field.
Because Bryant has become much more adept at running underneath routes and running after the catch, it might be better for the Steelers’ offense to use Bryant more on that side in an effort to sell deeper routes outside the numbers on the right side. That can help set up Brown on the other side while still pressuring the Seahawks’ defense, in their standard Cover 3 look, to stay farther back than they might otherwise.
This isn’t to suggest Brown cannot run deep, but Bryant is one of the few receivers in the NFL that actually have a noticeable size advantage over Sherman on going for balls in the air. He tracks deep passes very well, and is usually in a very competitive position to come down with a throw over his head.
Plus, keeping anyone with a high level of talent off Brown would be an excellent decision. Expect Brown to be targeted along the same level he’s been recently, or, about 15 times a game. The question is who’s going to be covering him, Williams or Sherman?
They’re the Legion of Boom
Cutting off those underneath routes and forcing teams to try deeper passes, right where their ballhawking safeties patrol fearlessly, is the key to their defense. Getting Brown into those intermediate routes while the safeties are worried about posts and flys from Bryant will be a key.
The Packers didn’t plan this touchdown in their Week 2 win over Seattle, but it shows the gaps in that defense as well as a team’s ability, when protecting the passer, to get a receiver underneath the safeties but in front of Sherman.
This is more of the fact Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the game and Earl Thomas didn’t react quickly enough to see James Jones get a step on Sherman.
Bryant is a good receiver. Brown is an excellent receiver. Seattle’s secondary is right up with both of them, and it will take a concerted effort, as well as an in-tune game plan from Todd Haley to crack through their defenses unscathed.
Carson Palmer had three touchdowns and 363 yards in the Cardinals’ 39-32 win over Seattle in Week 10. It took him 48 pass attempts to achieve that, and he was sacked three times and threw an interception. It’s not easy to throw the ball on this team.
But as Cardinals receiver Michael Floyd showed here, putting a talented and sizable receiver on Sherman’s side, and selling the deep route, can get Sherman caught worried about the big play. Since Martavis Bryant is a walking, talking big play waiting to happen, he’s a better option in that regard.
Ultimately, it will take a tremendous amount of effort for the Steelers’ passing offense not just to succeed getting the ball down the field, but keeping Roethlisberger protected. Roethlisberger has to choose his deep passes wisely, and it almost seems a certainty an interception will be a part of the box score. But if they’re careful enough, and gutsy enough, the Steelers’ offense might be able to get a few passing touchdowns against one of the best defenses in the game.