NEWARK -– Dan Quinn held up a hand. He wiggled his fingers.
The point the Seahawks' defensive coordinator was emphasizing? That the length of one man’s fingers is a big reason the Seattle Seahawks are preparing for the Super Bowl.
The football aspect of Seattle's Richard Sherman tipping a pass away from San Francisco's Michael Crabtree in the closing seconds of the NFC Championship was quickly overshadowed by Sherman’s postgame dissertation on his ability relative to Crabtree’s.
Sociological navel-gazing ensued.
But the play itself was made possible by Sherman’s smarts, timing, leaping ability and -– quite simply –- his length.
He’s 6-foot-3, but height isn’t the only measurable that matters when judging the size of a cornerback. Sherman also has 32-inch arms and hands that measure nearly 10-inches. His vertical leap is 38 inches.
Crabtree is 6-foot-1. His arms are a smidge longer than 34 inches. His hand is a half-inch smaller than Sherman’s. His vertical is 34 inches.
Add it all up and Sherman is about 4 1/2 inches longer than Crabtree. About the length of his fingers.
The Legion of Boom is just as much the League of Long. Sherman and 6-foot-1 Byron Maxwell are the starting corners. Their strong safety is the league’s most imposing defensive back, 6-foot-3, 232-pound Kam Chancellor. Their safety is 5-foot-10 Earl Thomas. On the small side for Seattle, but so immensely talented, the Seahawks can afford to make the exception. In December, 6-foot-4 Brandon Browner -– another cornerback -- was suspended for a year in after a substance policy violation.
Massive DBs, Pete Carroll said Tuesday, are what he needs.
“There is a difference,” Carroll told me during Super Bowl Media Day. “The big guys can make a big difference. It’s the ability to engulf receivers. Kam does it at 230-something pounds and pounding you; Sherm and Brandon Browner and Maxwell, those guys do it with their length and ability. There’s something to it and I learned it way back when in my college days and I’ve been trying to find guys like this ever since.
“It comes down to reach,” he added. “You’ll see guys who are there to make the play, they reach to make the play and they don’t get a hand on the ball. And the guy who’s got 32- to 34-inch arms, they can reach further.”
Makes sense. But few teams have gone to the same lengths Seattle has. Looking at the other teams in the NFL’s Final Four, four of the Niners’ six corner were 5- foot-10. The other two were 6-feet. They had two safeties listed at 6-1, another at 6-feet and two more at 5-foot-10, including their best safety, Donte Whitner.
The Broncos have 6-foot-2 corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (a willowy gu, who is not known for playing physically). The rest are 6-foot or smaller. The Broncos’ biggest safety is Duke Ihenacho. Chancellor is two inches taller and outweighs Ihenacho by 25 pounds.
The Patriots’ tallest corner is the 6-foot-1 Aqib Talib. The rest of the corners measure 5-11, 5-10 and 5-10 and those are optimistic listings. The Patriots’ starting safeties are 5-foot-10 Devin McCourty and 5-11 Steve Gregory.
The defensive scheme a team employs has a lot to do with the size of the corners it uses.
“If you’re an “off” (coverage) team (that gives cushion to the receivers at the line of scrimmage, size) doesn’t matter as much,” said Carroll. “But if you’re a bump-and-run-style team like we are, that length adds to the difficulty of the receivers to get off the football.”
Quinn points to end-zone plays like the one that decided the NFC Championship as a reason bigger is better.
“The 50-50 balls you throw up, especially in the red zone (are better defended by bigger corners),” he pointed out. “The guys who can play at the line of scrimmage you almost have to have because of the number of big receivers. There was a time when the (smaller) Cover-2 corners were in vogue. Now we want the guys who are big and can get their hands on guys because the receivers they’re on are 6-2 and 6-3 and you need to be able to match up with them.”
The Patriots are a “game plan” team that will switch its coverage style based on opponent. New England covets defensive backs who can toggle between different styles. But, as we saw in the AFC Championship game, smallish corners are ripe for exposure against big receivers on downfield routes and crossing patterns.
Demaryius Thomas (6-3), Julius Thomas (6-5) and Eric Decker (6-3) combined for 20 catches on 29 targets and 292 yards against New England in the AFC Championship. Denver killed New England with crossing patterns that –- perhaps -– could have been gummed up a bit if the Patriots' corners were more daunting with their jams at the line of scrimmage. They weren’t. And the quickness advantage the Patriots corners have over bigger receivers is mitigated when the quarterback is well-protected and accurate with his throws. Peyton Manning was able to throw to spots the Patriots corners couldn’t reach (witness Decker’s sideline ownership of Logan Ryan in the second quarter).
In the Super Bowl, Denver’s decided size advantage is going to be gone.
“We play a lot of three-deep (safeties) and a lot of man-to-man,” explained Quinn. “We ask a lot of those (cornerbacks) at the line in terms of pressing the receivers. But one other aspect to the press is that it wears out those receivers at the line. It’s hard getting off press all the time. Our guys are very strong.”
Wes Welker knows he’s going to get the fly-swatter treatment anytime the Seahawks get a chance.
"There's always that mindset (with a defense) that (officials) can't call everything, so it's one of those deals where you just have to deal with (physical play at the line),” he explained. “You've got to play through it and make it where they can't hold you. Run such a good route where they can't hold you or do anything like that. So, the main thing is going out there and playing the best you can and we'll see how the game is called early on and see how they're playing it and try to be physical ourselves."
Tom E. Curran is the Patriots Insider for CSN New England. Follow him on Twitter @tomecurran.