The Mouth and the Island

Two of the best corners the NFL has ever seen take center stage in the Super Bowl

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — For two players who never face each other, Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis are asked to grade each other an awful lot.

The two best cornerbacks in the NFL — and two of the best to ever play the position — have spent the majority of the last two weeks answering questions about each other. Is Revis better because he travels with wide receivers? Is Sherman more dominant because he has more interceptions?

And the big one: Who is the best cornerback in the NFL?

“I don’t answer preschool questions,” Sherman told reporters upon arriving in Arizona.

Neither is interested, at least publicly, in restarting their 2013 Twitter battle over which one of them is king of the cornerback castle. Sherman maintained that his game speaks for itself, while Revis went out of his way to praise any number of his defensive back brethren.

Super Bowl XLIX: Pregame starts at noon ET on NBC, Live Extra

“You can answer that question. I don’t know,” Revis said. “Everybody’s got a lot of opinions. … I respect them all. We have a lot of great corners in this league: Pat Peterson – I could go down a list, Joe Haden, (Aqib) Talib, (Richard) Sherman, you know, myself. There’s a bunch – (Chris) Harris, from the Broncos. There’s so many great guys that have been playing well. We a group. We a DB group. At the same time, it’s great to see your fellow DBs play great.”

No one believes them, of course. No player as fiercely competitive as Revis or Sherman honestly thinks anyone else is better, but it’s hard to blame them for not wanting to play that game through the media before Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday.

Their silence on the matter deflects the questions elsewhere, to the coaches who mentor them, the corners who play with them and the wide receivers who challenge them. The answers reveal two players with divergent games, yet a stunningly similar approach.

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An NFL meeting room is a dark place, lit mostly by the pale blue light of game tape. It’s a place for honest reflection, where success is mentioned and mistakes are amplified.

“Tape don’t lie,” as the saying goes. Play the wrong technique on this route, or fall out of phase, and your coach is all too happy to point it out in front of yours peers, regardless of whether your error resulted in yardage, or worse, points. For the two best cornerbacks in the league, tasked with covering the opponents’ best receivers on a weekly basis, it’s where the bulk of their work happens.

Revis’ work ethic is legendary. He spends his offseasons training in Arizona, working with other NFLers, particularly cornerbacks, in an intense program designed to prepare him for the grind that comes with marking some of the most talented skill players in the NFL. When he’s not in the weight room or running drills, he’s in a film room, breaking down tape of every opponent he might face the following season. It provides him with a base knowledge to refer back to during the season.

“You get behind the scenes and besides the actual game, the wonderful thing about (Revis) is just his work ethic,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “His ability to approach every day, to study film, going all the way back to the offseason – just his preparation and trying to improve his technique and trying to get better and trying to really be the best at his position. … That’s a thing as a coach that you love to see every day when you’re in that position. You can see it every day. That’s kind of awesome.”

Revis uses the tape study to build the game plan in his mind, quietly taking in what he sees on the screen and then translating it to the field.

“In the meeting room, he’s kind of taking it in,” Revis’ position coach, Josh Boyer, said of the four-time first-team All-Pro. “Like, ‘OK this is what we’re doing, this is what I need to do, this is where my focus is,’ and then he starts to go big picture from there. Then, once he sees it out on the field, that’s where it (translates).”

Seahawks cornerbacks coach Kris Richard sees the same traits in Sherman.

“He’s quiet,” Richard said of his star pupil’s attitude in the film room, firmly repeating the phrase a second time so as to stress that there’s more to Sherman than the brashness and bold talk to which we’ve become accustomed.

“More than just a football player, he’s an intelligent person, and he gets football,” Richard said. “It just makes it easy to be able to coach a guy who you don’t necessarily have to draw everything up for or things of that nature. You can just tell him. You can tell him about the splits, you can tell him about their releases and how they’re gonna try to attack him and he can make his adjustments during the game.”

Sherman’s intelligence has become a story in itself. Off the field, the Stanford grad has become a go-to spokesman on a multitude of issues, including what he perceives as a lack of understanding and hypocritical attitude from the league office. He also, along with Larry Fitzgerald and Arian Foster, served as a “visiting professor” at Harvard Business School last summer on a panel centered around the topic of race in sports.

“He’s an extraordinary guy. He’s got a great mind. He’s bright, he’s sharp. He’s got wit, he’s got creativity to him which is really what his game is like as well. It’s just the whole person that we’re talking about,” Sherman’s head coach, Pete Carroll, gushed. “He’s an extremely savvy football player. He can take in all of the elements and the indicators that come up, from a lineman to stances to quarterback reads to style of play, and incorporate that into his decision making. He’s an extraordinary decision-maker during games. His ability to analyze and break down things that are happening are really phenomenal, and that’s why he’s so unique and special.”

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Special. It’s the perfect word to describe this pair.

Two of the most individually dominant players of the past two decades, their distinct body types and unique physical skill sets are maximized by vastly different schemes. Revis, a stout 6-feet with a thickly built lower half, made his bones first under former Jets coach Eric Mangini, then reaching his peak in the pressure scheme of Mangini’s successor, Rex Ryan. There is perhaps no individual stretch of play as dominant as Revis’ from 2009-10, during which he allowed just five total touchdowns and an average of 2.4 receptions and 28.5 yards per game over 32 starts. Revis allowed receivers to catch the ball on just 39.2 percent of targets and completely shut out the opposition seven times over that span, including allowing no more than 86 yards in a single game.

Ryan’s defense maximized Revis’ ability to eliminate an entire side of the field in mostly single coverage. His role this season with New England has been far more varied, with Belichick and Patricia making use of their defensive personnel to attack opposing offenses differently on a week to week basis. Revis will spend some games as he did under Ryan, shadowing an elite wideout from the first snap to the last. Others, he’ll play more zone concepts than man, and sometimes, he’ll even get the Sherman treatment, remaining on one side of the field throughout the day.

Sherman, on the other hand, plays exclusively on the left side of the defense as part of the Seahawks’ Cover-3 scheme. It’s the role he’s played since coming into the league as a fifth-round pick in 2011 and one for which he’s perfectly suited. Although he lacks Revis’ speed, Sherman’s long, athletic 6-foot-3 frame and his instincts allow him to compensate for any physical misgivings. Although he’s talented enough to trail the other team’s best receiver, Sherman doesn’t need to, as Seattle’s defense allows him to play off of his fellow defensive backs, particularly safety Earl Thomas, which allows Sherman to play aggressive at the point of attack.

Recruited to play wide receiver at Stanford, Sherman plays cornerback like a wideout. He’s smooth in his movements and uses his hands extremely well, particularly when the ball is in the air. He’s one of the best in the league at tracking the ball in the air and challenging a receiver for the ball at its highest point. Over the last four regular seasons, Sherman has 24 interceptions, one more than Revis has in seven-plus years.

“They have multiple different techniques that they use,” Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin said. Sherman “has a different technique than Revis does. Revis is probably one of the most patient defensive backs I have watched on tape. His technique is vastly different from what I have seen from other guys. It presents a challenge. Sherman is one of those guys – he might not be the most patient but he has length to him and his competitiveness is unparalleled. Two vastly different techniques, but they are both obviously very good at what they do.”

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It’s doubtful Sunday’s game will end with an answer to the question of who is the better corner. The duo finished the regular season as the third- and fourth-rated cornerbacks, respectively, according to Pro Football Focus. Both players began the season with rough patches before settling into their games as the players around them got healthy and each defense hit its stride.

After Brandon Browner, Sherman’s former teammate, returned from suspension and joined New England’s lineup in Week 7, Revis went from allowing a catch rate of 59.3 percent without Browner in the lineup to 48.1 with him active. Revis also allowed an opposing quarterback rating of 67.2 from Weeks 7-17 compared to 89.2 the six weeks prior, something Boyer, the Patriots’ cornerbacks coach, attributes to time and an overall team improvement.

“I think the early part of the season you’re really finding out what kind of team you’ve got and where you need to go with them,” Boyer said. “I think it’s really kind of an extension of, you’ve just left training camp, we’re trying to work on technique and fundamentals. I think the game plans are a little more vanilla and as you get through the season, you know, you’ve got more tendencies, you’ve got more things you’re doing. I think it’s a process.”

That process played out in Seattle as well, as safety Kam Chancellor, linebacker Bobby Wagner and fellow corner Byron Maxwell struggled with injuries through the first half of season. Once the trio returned to full strength prior to a Week 11 contest against the Arizona Cardinals, Seattle’s defense, and with it Sherman’s play, reached new heights. Over the season’s final six games, Sherman notched three of his four interceptions and allowed an opposing quarterback rating of just 26.5 on passes thrown in his direction.

Just two weeks ago, in their respective conference title games, both Revis and Sherman fit their respective duties to a T. Each had an interception and was targeted just twice, with Sherman allowing the only reception, a six-yard completion to Packers wideout Jordy Nelson. Revis’ pick sealed a dominant victory from New England, while Sherman’s came on an acrobatic grab in the end zone over Packers rookie wideout Davante Adams and helped keep the game within reach early in the first half.

Although both were doubted at points during the season – Revis is two years removed from a torn ACL; Sherman was placed on an island with his teammates ailing – by the end of the year, both returned to being dominant, game-changing players who asserted their will on opposing offenses.

“I would say that’s where they’re very similar,” said Richard, Sherman’s position coach. “Just being calculating, being confident and having a dominant attitude and just going out there and proving it.”

As for who’s the best? They’ll leave that up to everyone else.