News broke this morning that Richard Sherman won his appeal, proving his drug test was faulty. Sherman has arguably been the best player on the NFL’s best defense so far this season. He came into this season with a chip on his shoulder, and the recent events have surely turned that into a boulder. His presence makes a good group of corners the best. Teams like Atlanta and Green Bay that rely heavily on star receivers getting open just saw their Super Bowl hopes take a serious hit.
Sure, the Seahawks were set to get Brandon Browner back for the playoffs no matter what happened with Sherman, but the ripple effect of getting both starting corners back for the post-season is significant. A Seahawks lineup without Sherman would have had Browner on one side, flanked by Walter Thurmond or Jeremy Lane. Nickel situations would have resulted in Thurmond taking the slot, while Byron Maxwell or Marcus Trufant would be dime backs.
Seattle has managed to excel with Lane, Maxwell and Thurmond getting significant snaps while Browner has been out. Nobody will mistake Ryan Lindley, John Skelton, Ryan Fitzpatrick or Colin Kaepernick for Aaron Rodgers or Matt Ryan. Nor will they mistake their receiving corps for those of the Packers or Falcons. The real story may have less to do with opponents and more to do with another Seahawks corner who has been out.
Trufant has been injured since the Seahawks game versus the Bears, which also happened to be when the current Seattle win streak began. The Seahawks have been among the NFL’s best at stopping opponents top two receivers, but have been the worst when it came to stopping the slot receiver. Trufant played nickel all year and the results had not been particularly encouraging. Thurmond stepped into that role for the Bears game and did not allow a completion. He followed that with a sterling performance against the Cardinals and Larry Fitzgerald. Thurmond was then injured in practice and missed the Bills and 49ers games.
The Bills did not feature a good slot receiver, but they learned quickly that they could target Lane in the slot with Stevie Johnson and get plenty of space. The 49ers do not employ three receivers all that often since they lean on tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. That led Seattle to give more snaps to safeties like Kam Chancellor and Jeron Johnson. Facing an opponent that employs four receiver sets could have exposed the Seahawks defense these past two weeks when they were under-manned. Instead, they held the last three opponents to a combined passer rating of 48.8. Now, come the reinforcements.
Trufant is practicing again, and Thurmond is rumored to be right behind him. Browner will be back for the first game of the playoffs. Sherman was potentially out until the Super Bowl, but is now free to continue playing. There has been only one game all season where Browner, Sherman and Thurmond were all available, and that was Chicago. It happened to be Browner’s worst game of the season, as Brandon Marshall beat him much of the day.
The smart money is on Browner regaining his starting role, and Thurmond taking over nickel when he is healthy. It would not be a complete shock if Thurmond pushes Browner for that starting role and Browner comes on when Thurmond slides inside for the nickel. The only major question with Thurmond is his health. He is in Sherman’s class when healthy, and you can ask the Cardinals how it feels to face those two as a starting pair.
Lane has also earned snaps. He appeared to be on the cusp of a breakout game against the 49ers, just missing two interceptions. Do not be surprised if he has that big game this week against the Rams before returning to his special teams role for the playoffs. Should Thurmond be unable to stay on the field, Lane would battle Trufant for the nickel spot. Lane excelled on the outside, but has not proven he is the better option in the slot. Either way, Seahawks coaches know they have a player ready to step up.
Behold the trail of receiving destruction Browner and Sherman have left in their wake this season:
Jordy Nelson 2 catches for 19 yards
Greg Jennings 6 catches for 35 yards
Dez Bryant 3 catches for 17 yards
Steve Smith 4 catches in 14 targets
Calvin Johnson to 3 catches for 46 yards
Percy Havin 2 catches for 10 yards
Grown men have resorted to crying to mama about these two players. Now, the Seahawks have allowed an average of 6.5 points/game without Browner the last three games. They may challenge the laws of math and the NFL when he returns and Thurmond gets healthy. Is it possible to hold a team to negative points?
This is a group of corners so talented, Seahawks fans should savor this season and 2013, because other teams will surely covet their services. For now, Seattle coaches can choose to mix-and-match their personnel to fit the opponent and situation.
Richard Sherman – Shutdown corner, playmaker, can guard any player at any time
Brandon Browner – Physical press corner that will intimidate anyone he faces, and is a fantastic run defender
Walter Thurmond – Future Pro Bowl talent that can play inside and out when healthy, better cover corner than Browner, but not as strong of a run defender
Jeremy Lane – May be the next Thurmond in terms of coverage ability, plays with a mean streak and unmatched speed. Special teams ace.
Marcus Trufant – Wise veteran who will be in the right place and recognize routes/plays
Byron Maxwell – Physically gifted corner that plays mostly outside. Special teams ace
And those are just the corners. Earl Thomas is considered the best safety in the NFL by some, and Kam Chancellor is busy forcing the NFL to rewriting rules to protect opponents from his fury. Both Thomas and Chancellor have been playing their best football in the last three weeks. Interceptions, big hits and forced fumbles are starting to happen more frequently. Tackles for short gains have become tackles for loss.
This group will collectively pose the biggest threat to the modern NFL belief that great quarterbacks and passing wins Super Bowls. It is a group that was custom-built to dismantle quarterbacks and receivers. They explode into the playoffs challenging the notion that they are secondary to front sevens or star quarterbacks. They are equipped to demand primary attention and dictate the outcomes of games in front of them. The best team in football just got better.