The Elephant in the Locker Room: How to Make an Interception Look Easy


Hawks-150Yeah, the ‘Hawks are big news. Expectations are high, and everyone’s paying attention… including the national media. But every week it seems like there’s some key issue that’s getting glossed over–some topic that, for one reason or another, is being avoided. It’s the elephant in the locker room, if you will, and gosh darn if I’ll let that ride. Join us on Saturday mornings for a little closer look at our World Champions.

By Greg Wright

Never mind the Richard Sherman v. Michael Crabtree feud. Aside from a couple offsetting personal fouls in Thursday night’s game, that didn’t amount to much… particularly on Crabtree’s end, as the 49er receiver finished the night with 10 yards on 3 catches.

Sherman, however, was back in Championship Season form with two picks off Colin Kaepernick.

In the 49er lockerroom after the game, Crabtree was asked about whether he was concerned about facing Sherman again in the November 27 rematch in Seattle. “I’m not worried about that dude,” said Crabtree. “It’s more scheme, it’s not one-on-one. It’s scheme. You’ve seen that. No one-on-one at all. Just scheme. They did a good job scheming.”

In part, Crabtree is right. On the play in which Sherman nabbed his first interception, the Hawks D was employing a modified zone-coverage scheme. (You can watch the interception here.)

You will notice as the play develops that targeted wide receiver Brandon Lloyd is close to ten yards downfield before Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, and K.J. Wright even begin to respond to the developing play. They are simply monitoring activity within their assigned zones of coverage.

Richard Sherman, however, is most definitely in man-coverage on Brandon Lloyd. And as the play develops in real time, it’s easy to watch and respond, “What was Kaepernick thinking?” and credit Sherman with an “easy” interception.

I know it’s easy to respond that way because I heard my whole family react that way during the game. And I heard Dave Wyman, Mike Salk, and Michael Grey all talk about Sherman’s “easy pick” on ESPN 710 yesterday. Richard Sherman himself said that on the play he was the “open receiver” to whom Kaepernick was throwing the ball.

Well, Sherman may have made it look easy, but that’s why Sherman is one of the best.

Let’s walk through this, shall we?  In the first screen grab below, note how Sherman is lined up opposite Lloyd, shaded to the outside. It’s not press-man coverage (in which Sherman would be “pressing” Lloyd right at the line of scrimmage), but it’s not soft zone, either (in which Sherman would be five or more yards off the ball). Sherman’s responsibility on this play is the left third of the defensive backfield, with Earl Thomas up “in the box” and Kam Chancellor deep in the middle. K.J. Wright has the underneath coverage on the left.

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As Lloyd releases from the line of scrimmage, though, Sherman plays him tight, and Lloyd’s route is designed as a double-move in an attempt to get Sherman to “bite” on a short “in.” Sherman does take one step upfield as Lloyd stutters to his own left, but as he releases again upfield you can see below that Sherman hasn’t “bit” at all. In fact, in his response to Lloyd’s first move he’s thrown the entire play off already, forcing Lloyd more to the outside than he’d like to have been.

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Lloyd is hoping to escape past and outside Sherman, but Sherman’s speed, quickness, and film study has him cutting off Lloyd’s progression toward the spot where Kaepernick is targeting the ball. Sherman has superior position, so Lloyd has got to adjust.

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Note where Sherman’s and Lloyd’s heads are in the above screen grab. As they move downfield stride for stride, Sherman is looking back over his inside shoulder. Lloyd is looking back over his outside shoulder. Because of the actual “man” coverage Lloyd has received from Sherman rather than loose zone coverage, Lloyd is expecting Kaepernick to also read the coverage and throw an outside-shoulder “fade” pass. But the ball is already in the air, and Sherman can see it. It’s heading right to the spot where Lloyd was supposed to go–but Lloyd is already cutting his route short because Sherman has the intended route completely covered.

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As Lloyd gets his head around to look for the fade pass, he discovers, almost completely flat-footed and to his utter dismay, that the ball is behind him–right where Richard Sherman knew it would be. Checkmate. It’s only a matter of one yard off from where Lloyd actually is, but it might as well be a mile.

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Here’s another view of that moment.

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So Crabtree was right. The Seahawks had the right scheme in place. But Richard Sherman also had the skills, experience, and game knowledge to disrupt the play and gain the advantage. It’s a game of inches, as they say, and Sherman manipulated about 36 of them to his advantage.

The only “easy” part of the play was catching the ball–because Lloyd was so badly out of position. Everything else that Sherman did was the result of hard work that started years ago, was honed during film study over the short practice week, and developed during the play itself. The way Sherman covered Lloyd’s route was not “easy” at all. It was masterful.

What Crabtree ought to be talking about, though, is the 49ers’ scheme on the play–and Kaepernick’s inability to do anything but run with it. He reads zone initially, and sticks with the play call even though he should be able to read Sherman’s coverage adjustment on Lloyd and throw the fade instead–just as Lloyd was expecting.

If Lloyd can read the play correctly, why can’t Kaepernick?

Because Sherman makes it look too easy.


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