49ers

Richard Sherman vividly explains why 49ers don't shadow wide receivers

Richard Sherman vividly explains why 49ers don't shadow wide receivers

SANTA CLARA -- Though Richard Sherman is a graduate of Stanford University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning on planet earth, his Thursday afternoon analysis of defensive strategy came straight outta Compton.

The subject was man-to-man coverage and Sherman’s avowed comfort at left cornerback.

The insinuation was that an opposing team could, theoretically, neutralize Sherman, surely the 49ers' best cornerback and perhaps tops in the NFL, by sending its best receiver to the opposite side of the field.

That the Green Bay Packers, for example, might frequently deploy No. 1 receiver Davante Adams to the right side of the San Francisco defense when the teams meet Sunday to decide the NFL representative in Super Bowl LIV.

It would not be illogical, in this instance, to have Sherman “shadow” Adams. Many defensive coordinators have made that request of their top cover corner.

Sherman proceeded to eviscerate that plan by using what folks in his hometown refer to as common sense.

“We have the No. 1 pass defense in this league,” the Compton native said while standing at the podium in the interview auditorium, “and we haven’t done it.”

The statistics absolutely support Sherman’s claim and his dismissiveness toward making a change that might convey a measure of desperation by the 49ers.

With Sherman almost exclusively on the left side, San Francisco in the regular season was the NFL’s top pass defense, allowing an average of 169.2 yards per game – the lowest average allowed by any team since 2009, when the Jets limited passers to an average of 153.7.

Moreover, the 49ers led the league in net yards per attempt at 4.8 and tied with the Patriots for fewest first downs allowed via pass, averaging 9.4 per game.

These numbers are among the factors that have made defensive coordinator Robert Saleh a candidate to become a head coach. They undoubtedly influence Sherman’s belief in Saleh, and as long as the numbers confirm no change is needed there will be request to follow Adams on Sunday or any other receiver on any other team.

“I love it how people are like, ‘Oh, my gawd, these guys need to do this,’ ” Sherman said in his usual audacious tone. “Well, I’m going to let you know something: You go to your job and tell your boss what you’re going to do and what you’re not going to do and see how long you last.

“Saleh calls the defense. If Saleh comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, you follow this guy everywhere he goes,' then that’s what I’m going to do. If he doesn’t, guess what? I’m going to do what he told me to do. That’s how coaching and player relationships work.

“And it just so happens, we have the No. 1 pass defense in the league,” he reiterated before sprinkling bits of sarcasm with his truth. “Whoa! Oh, my gawd! It’s crazy. Crazy that you’re not following anybody but, somehow, you’ve got the No. 1 pass defense in the league. It’s almost like our strategy works. It’s almost like you’re in idiot for doing it any other way. It’s almost like you’re dumb if you do it another way. It’s almost like people who have been saying, ‘Oh, do it this way’ for so long, but they don’t have the No. 1 defense.”

For Sherman, and for Saleh, it’s about doing what has worked. What succeeds. What wins. Is there a risk to staying true to their tendencies? Perhaps. If Adams avoids Sherman and torches Emmanuel Moseley and Ahkello Witherspoon – and the latter has been vulnerable – and Green Bay prevails, there will be second-guessing. Because there always is.

Don’t expect it from Sherman, who posed a rhetorical scenario that essentially has a great left tackle shadowing a great pass rusher, no matter where he goes. This does not happen, nor can it ever be expected.

Until it does, Sherman has one criterion for any strategy involving his placement.

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“Does it help us win the game? Is it going to help the defense? Is it going to help us limit their explosive (plays)? Then I’ll do it,” he said. “If it’s not. If it doesn’t make a difference, if it’s ... then that’s what I’m going to do.”

It’s not that he never has shadowed a receiver. He has done it against Atlanta’s Julio Jones, against Cincinnati’s A.J. Green. But as a rule, no.

So when the topic was floated this time, Sherman was armed and ready, and filled the room with facts.

NFL Draft 2020: Clemson's Isaiah Simmons designed to stop George Kittle?

NFL Draft 2020: Clemson's Isaiah Simmons designed to stop George Kittle?

INDIANAPOLIS -- George Kittle: Pass-catchers want to be like him; defenders want to contain him.

Kittle, three years removed from taking part in the NFL Scouting Combine, is now a transcendent player with the 49ers. He has become a standard for players who aspire for pro football stardom on either side of the ball.

In the case of do-everything Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons, he sees his value in the NFL as a player who can be an antidote for the way Kittle can control a game. After all, Kittle is a force in the passing game or as a run-blocker.

Why do NFL defenses need players like Simmons?

“If you know who George Kittle and Travis Kelce are, then that explains it all,” Simmons said Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine. “Stopping tight ends, and linebackers playing man (coverage) on running backs.

“The game is no longer a 250-pound linebacker. It’s more guys that are able to run side to side and are able to cover. It’s just a necessity now with the tight ends and running backs.”

Simmons is a safety in a linebacker’s body. Or is he a linebacker in a defense end’s body? Or is he something entirely different. When asked what position he plays, Simmons' standard answer is "defense."

“I would do everything I did in college,” Simmons said. “Just kind of like a Swiss Army knife. Move me around because then I’m able to show what I can really do. I wouldn’t say I’m really tied down to one position.”

Simmons measured in at 6-foot-3 5/8, 238 pounds with a wingspan of 81 7/8 inches. He could be a top-five pick in the draft. What's certain is this: When Simmons and Kittle are playing in the same game for the first time, it will be as competitors. The 49ers' first pick is at No. 31 overall.

As a junior, before declaring for the NFL Draft, Simmons registered 104 tackles in 15 games with eight sacks, three interceptions, eight passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

He compares his game to that of Kansas City defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, who is more than 6 inches shorter and nearly 50 pounds lighter than Simmons.

“I know years ago it wasn’t good to be a positionless guy,” Simmons said. “But, now, it’s become a benefit for me just because of all the versatility. I’ll be able to do, play linebacker, play safety, whatever it is, I feel like it just helps me out.

“Mentally, I feel like there isn’t anything I can’t do. I played every position except for a nose or 3-technique. When it comes down to it, I’m going to try with my best ability to do everything I can.”

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And that includes matching up with the top tight ends in the NFL – the guys who are difficult for any other player at a standard position to defend. Kittle, for instance, is too fast for linebackers and too strong and aggressive for defensive backs. Even Randy Moss' son, Thaddeus, is identifying Kittle as the player he tries to emulate

“The game is evolving so, the name of the game now is stopping tight ends,” Simmons said. “So something has to be done to stop these Travis Kelces and George Kittles out there.”

Kittle was voted the All-Pro tight end after his second consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season. He set the single-season NFL record for tight ends with 1,377 yards in 2018. Kelce registered his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2019.

2020 NFL Draft: Five defensive players 49ers should watch at combine

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AP

2020 NFL Draft: Five defensive players 49ers should watch at combine

What a difference one year can make.

Last year, the 49ers entered the NFL Scouting Combine with the No. 2 pick in the draft and had their eyes on defensive end Nick Bosa. This time around, San Francisco has the No. 31 pick after losing to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. Bosa was named Defensive Rookie of the Year after a dominant season.

While the 49ers have fewer needs and holes to fill than this time last year, there still are areas they can improve on through the draft. We already highlighted five receivers they should be watching throughout the combine. Now it's time to turn to the defense. 

Under coordinator Robert Saleh, the 49ers' pass defense improved by leaps and bounds last season. They allowed the fewest passing yards per games in the NFL at 169.2, but ranked just 16th in touchdowns allowed (23) and tied for eighth with 12 interceptions. Their pass defense benefitted greatly from a dangerous D-line, and the defensive backfield still could use some help. 

Safety Jimmie Ward is set to hit free agency, cornerback Richard Sherman turns 32 years old in March and is a free agent after 2020, and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon took yet another step back in his third pro season. 

Alabama's Xavier McKinney could be the perfect draft prospect for the 49ers, but likely will be gone by the time they're on the clock. Cal product Ashtyn Davis also would have been a name to watch at the combine, however, the former track star isn't competing in drills as he rehabs from surgery that left him out of the Senior Bowl and the Redbox Bowl. 

LSU safety Grant Delpit fell to the 49ers in our latest mock draft before the combine, but won't perform in drills as he comes back from an ankle injury.

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With that being said, here are five defensive backs for the 49ers to keep their eyes on in Indianapolis. All of the players below are expected to be available near the end of the first round of if the 49ers trade back to the second round.

C.J. Henderson, CB, Florida

Henderson is expected to test well and could be really impressive in drills. He's a lanky cornerback at 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds, who looks smooth in coverage. 

Henderson didn't have any interceptions as a junior but did produce 11 passes defensed. Over his three-year college career, he had six picks and 20 passes defensed. 

It might be a surprise if he's still available at No. 31. 

Damon Arnette, CB, Ohio State

Jeffrey Okudah stole the spotlight in the Buckeyes' secondary, but Arnette is rising up draft boards. While Okudah figures to be a top pick, Arnette should be available for the 49ers. 

That doesn't mean Arnette is a player to look past, though. He can play press or off the ball and got better and better at Ohio State. 

Arnette has plenty to gain at the combine, and could find himself on the 49ers' radar. 

Trevon Diggs, CB, Alabama

There are serious concerns about Diggs' ability as a tackler. He is a converted receiver and it really shows at times. But, his skills could convert well to Saleh's Cover 3 defense.

Diggs is the kind of long corner at 6-2 and 207 pounds that Saleh covets. The athleticism and ball skills are there. There also are reasons to worry about him if he's asked to do what doesn't fit him best. 

A.J. Terrell, CB, Clemson

One bad outing doesn't change everything. Terrell was roasted for giving up multiple touchdowns in the national championship game, but many of those were from being slightly too aggressive with his hands and a technique issue that easily can be changed. 

Terrell is a handsy corner who really knows how to jab. If he falls down boards, the 49ers should take advantage of that. 


Antoine Winfield Jr., S, Minnesota

Winfield is a firecracker. The 5-10 safety might not dominate the 40-yard dash but he makes plays. As a redshirt sophomore, Winfield recorded 83 tackles, seven interceptions and forced two fumbles. 

Winfield might not be the 49ers' first option at safety, however, they could take a long look at him if he falls. His tape speaks louder than his size or straight-line speed.