MIAMI, Fla. -- When it comes to Richard Sherman and Tyrann Mathieu, the defensive leaders of the 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs, there's a whole lot of R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
As the 49ers and Chiefs prepare for their championship bout in Super Bowl LIV, Mathieu has been the key to the Chiefs' defensive turnaround along with new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Mathieu came over from the Houston Texans in the offseason and has set the tone for a Chiefs defense that badly needed an adjustment after last season when a porous secondary kept them from winning the AFC championship against the New England Patriots.
Mathieu began his career as a member of the Arizona Cardinals, spending five years in the NFC West while Sherman was with the Seahawks and the Honey Badger has been watching in awe of the 49ers cornerback's mental and physical abilities for years, while trying to emulate some of his game.
"I think, I was so fortunate to play in the same division with Sherman and really Kam Chancellor, all those guys," Mathieu said Monday at Super Bowl Opening Night in Miami. "I used to marvel at some of the things that they do right? And it wasn't really athletic things, right? It was more so the communication things and the mental part of the game, that I think he's doing the same thing for San Francisco, right? He's setting the tempo. He's giving them the energy that they need, putting those guys in a certain mindset. You can tell he's a clear-cut leader over there and he's a guy I've always admired from a far.
"I've always tried to emulate, you know, his leadership, his thinking ability when he's on the football field. He's probably one of the most aware cornerbacks that I've ever seen play the game and I think San Francisco got lucky when they got Sherman."
Sherman was hampered athletically during his first year with the 49ers, as he played with sutures still in his Achilles from when he ruptured the tendon in 2017. But now fully healthy, Sherman put together a dominant second season with San Francisco, earning second-team All-Pro honors and a Pro-Bowl selection.
To Mathieu, it's clear the same Sherman that dominated for the Seahawks' "Legion fo Boom" defense, has brought that edge, mindset and talent to the Bay Area.
"Like I said, playing in the same division for almost five years, I watched him a lot, studied them a lot," Mathieu said of the "Legion of Boom." "That Seattle secondary, I remember playing against them and watching them work, watch them communicate. They were always on a different level than everyone else.
"I think Sherman has really brought that to the 49ers. He's brought that confidence. That belief that if you put in enough work you can be whoever you want and I think that's who they are."
After Opening Night, the two defensive stars exchanged admiration for each other on Twitter.
Respect brother https://t.co/xdB8YWVoQ0— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) January 28, 2020
Love ya game & mindset. You know that !— Tyrann Mathieu (@Mathieu_Era) January 28, 2020
Love yours too brother! Been a fan of your game since college and you have continued to evolve.— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) January 28, 2020
Mathieu's evolution through the years is a story to be admired. He's battled through a lot of adversity, some self-inflicted, but he has come out the other side and now is one win away from a Super Bowl championship.
Standing in Mathieu and the Chiefs' way is Sherman and the NFL's best defense. While the world mainly is focused on the battle between the 49ers' defense and Patrick Mahomes, the game may very well be decided by whether or not Mathieu and the Chiefs' defense can stop the 49ers' vaunted rushing attack.
After years of studying Sherman's mindset, Mathieu is ready for the biggest stage in sports.
Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 9 p.m. Tuesday and 3 p.m. Saturday).
Also tune in at 1 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday for a two-hour special of "49ers Pregame Live" with Laura Britt, Donte Whitner, Jeff Garcia, Ian Williams, Kelli Johnson, Greg Papa and Grant Liffmann. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on "49ers Postgame Live," starting immediately after the game.