Barber: Richard Sherman passes his first test with 49ers

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SANTA CLARA — Week 1 probably created as many questions as it answered for the 49ers.

Can Kyle Shanahan find a backfield combination to compensate for the loss of Jerick McKinnon? Can anyone beyond DeForest Buckner rush the passer? Can the 49ers afford to send Fred Warner to the bench when Reuben Foster returns from his two-game suspension? Is Jimmy G all that?

But it did answer at least one question, definitively and resoundingly. Is Richard Sherman still a top-tier NFL cornerback? Yes, he is, if we’re using his performance against the Vikings as our guide.

This outcome was not a slam dunk. Not by a long shot. Sherman is a four-time Pro Bowler, one of the few NFL defenders who is respected equally for his physical prowess and his mental agility. But he is 30 years old and coming off of major surgery and rehab for a torn Achilles’ tendon.

Sherman hadn’t played meaningful football since Nov. 9. He missed the final seven games of 2017 with Seattle, and an Achilles’ tear is no joke. It’s a diagnosis that has wrecked NFL careers before, especially for guys playing speed positions.

And while 30 doesn’t sound like a big number, it is frequently the sell-by date for NFL cornerbacks. I think of Nnamdi Asomugha, drafted by the Raiders in 2003. For three seasons, 2006-08, Asomugha was the best corner I ever covered on a regular basis. He was close to flawless, in fact. But he started to get banged up, and flaws emerged in his coverage even as his fame grew. (There’s always a lag in the NFL, unless you play an offensive skill position.) Asomugha was 30 when he signed a huge free-agent contract with the Eagles, and he was never again an elite cover man.

This summer, there were signs that Sherman could be on a similar downward arc. On July 29, after Sherman’s first padded practice with the 49ers, NBC Sports Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco posted video of two telling plays. On the first, San Francisco wide receiver Marquise Goodwin torched Sherman on a deep route. On the second, Sherman was forced to grab the jersey of Aldrick Robinson when he was beaten again.

These were mere misdemeanors. These guys are fast, and Sherman was just getting back into playing shape. But it helped to form public opinion of Richard Sherman on the wrong side of 30.

Before practice Thursday, I asked a couple of Sherman’s teammates in the secondary if they had harbored any doubts about the veteran’s ability to turn back the clock.

“No, just because there wasn’t any lack of confidence in himself,” right cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon said. “It was just him emitting that confidence throughout camp. Through some of the setbacks or whatever, he just remained the same.”

“Nah,” backup Jimmie Ward said. “He knows the system, he plays in the system. He has great technique. So I don’t feel like you need to like overachieve on the field if you know your defense and you trust your defense. He knows where everyone’s at on the field, and he trusts his instincts.”

Confidence and a strong mental grasp of the defensive system don’t seem like great indicators of success to me. It turns out these guys knew what they were talking about.

Thursday morning, I watched the coaches’ tape of Sherman’s afternoon in Minneapolis, and he was even better than I had imagined. He played all 71 defensive snaps for the 49ers in Week 1, most of them split wide to the left of the defensive formation. And Pro Football Focus, the national scouting service, counted three times that he was targeted by Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, with one completion to Stefon Diggs for 18 yards. I actually counted just two targets, but the coaching tape on NFL Game Pass has gaps. I probably missed the third.

In any case, Sherman looked fluid, physical and confident against Minnesota. In other words, he looked like Richard Sherman in peak Legion of Boom days. Cousins hardly even looked in his direction.

A couple plays can illustrate Sherman’s effectiveness:

With 1:27 remaining before halftime, Vikings receiver Laquon Treadwell ran a short comeback route near the sideline. Sherman kept a hand on him the whole time, and was never more than a foot from Treadwell. Cousins threw to him anyway, but the timing was shot and the pass bounced.

About a minute later, Treadwell took an outside step and sprinted straight up the field. Sherman ran with him stride for stride, even after flipping his head around with a quick spin move; Treadwell shut down his route and Cousins’ pass went somewhere else.

The only time I saw anyone get away from Sherman was on the second play of the second quarter, when Treadwell ran a skinny post and got just a little separation to the inside. Treadwell reacted with frustration when Cousins threw to a different receiver, and Sherman, sensing vulnerability, told Treadwell to get back to the huddle.

Niners defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said that Sherman did “a really good job.” Saleh added: “The one ball that he may have given up was like a triple move with the quarterback scrambling, which would be very difficult to defend for even the greatest corners of all time.”

But Sherman, who can be so cocky on the field and is often loquacious on a variety of topics, downplayed his comeback.

“It was solid. It was solid,” he said Thursday. “There were some things I could do better. There were some alignment and distance issues that I had early on, but I kind of got my feet under me. I think overall it was as I expected. My legs felt good. My cut breaks felt good.”

Asked how it felt to be playing again after his long hiatus Sherman responded: “It felt normal. Psychologically, it felt normal. It felt like I played the game before and played it for a long time. I just kept that mentality and prepared that way. I didn’t take it like I had taken eight games off or whatever it was. I just took it like it was another game in the progression.”

This was probably the most obvious measure of Sherman’s confidence level. This is an athlete who has made a career out of playing with a chip on his shoulder. That’s how an undrafted free agent became a borderline Pro Football Hall of Famer. If he were feeling diminished, you would probably hear the defiance in his voice. There was none of that Thursday. Just a veteran athlete going about his business and looking ahead to Week 2 against the Detroit Lions.

“I’m not one of those players that gives the big exhale, like, ‘Ahh, man,’” Sherman said. “Once I’m done playing, whenever that is, I’ll take a big exhale, and look around and see what I did. Until then, I’ll just keep playing.”

And, for now, proving his doubters wrong.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-529-5218 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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