San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman is undeniably elite. After recovering from an Achilles injury, the 31-year-old returned to form quickly. He brimmed with confidence. Sherman even took what looked like a bad contract — with most of the money tied up in incentives — and made off like a bandit.
This should be exactly the kind of player a team wants on the field for a challenging Super Bowl showdown. But there’s a problem with this matchup. The kind of straight-up mismatch between Sherman’s skill set and the Chiefs’ offensive habits needs a closer look.
Why the Chiefs’ offense is the stuff of nightmares
Sherman runs a zone-only style. The Chiefs? They don’t respect this. It’s worrying enough that there’s a good chance this is the thought keeping Sherman up at night. He’s always been a cerebral sort of player, which is a natural fit for zone defense.
Against average players, Sherman’s ability to read plays as they unfold gives him a massive advantage. The problem is, the Chiefs are too fast for zone-only corners to operate effectively. Their offense averaged 15.4 miles per reception. That is absurdly speedy.
Zone-only is already nearly extinct in the NFL. Even Sherman has his work cut out for him against these guys, especially concerning the three Chiefs receivers who broke 21 miles per hour during the 2019-20 season alone.
Who are the Chiefs’ fastest receivers?
The Chiefs’ speed isn’t exactly under the radar. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill is noted for his speed-demon antics going back to when he joined Kansas City in 2016. Back in November, Hill went viral for a stat that won’t appear in any 2019 lists.
As teammate Damian Williams ran in a touchdown, with the Minnesota Vikings defense giving up on the seemingly impossible play, Hill decided to show up. He bolted to catch up with Williams in the end zone, topping out at 22.64 miles per hour — the fastest receiving speed of any player during the regular season, had he done it while catching the ball himself.
Two other KC receivers went nearly as fast when it actually mattered. WR Sammy Watkins hit 21.33 miles per hour on a 68-yard reception touchdown. And WR Mecole Hardman redlined it on a 63-yard reception touchdown, to the tune of 21.87 miles per hour. How can a zone-focused corner like Sherman keep up?
Why Richard Sherman should be worried
Richard Sherman’s problems handling the Chiefs’ offense come largely down to the speed mismatch. Achilles injuries are notorious for slowing down athletes for good. From Sherman and Kevin Durant to the late, great Kobe Bryant, this is an incontrovertible fact of sports.
Sherman already avoided man-to-man matchups, favoring his football IQ to shutdown offense. Since the injury, he’s had to lean more on this skill than ever before.
The biggest knock on Sherman’s chances going into Sunday? His weak showing against Green Bay’s Davante Adams, who torched Sherman on a 65-yard catch. It was a moment that, had the 49ers lost the game, would be pivotal. Instead, it only serves as a possible hint for Sherman’s fortunes in the big game.
He’ll have to be prepared to shut down a strong running game. It’ll be punctuated by bombs like the one Adams received on his watch as Mahomes is more than capable of handling both approaches.
Tyreek Hill, Sherman’s most likely assignment, is six years younger than Sherman. His inexperience may be the best weakness for Sherman to take advantage of because physically the two are a mismatch. It’s will be a tough go for the already legendary Sherman. If his sleepless nights give him the needed to time find a way to shut down the Chiefs, it’ll be worth it.
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