Trufant sustained a toe injury against the Houston Texans that sidelined him for the next four games, thrusting the speedy Sheffield into action. For the first three of those games, against the Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks, respectively, Sheffield lined up at Trufant’s spot of right outside cornerback. Against the Saints, Sheffield slid down to the nickel cornerback role.
At each of those positions, Sheffield has more than held his own and built a promising start to his NFL career.
“I definitely feel like I’ve gotten a lot better,” Sheffield said. “Especially because I’ve been playing multiple positions, corner and nickel. I’m just happy to be out there and just trying to do my best every day to get better.”
A fourth-round draft pick for the Falcons, Sheffield was known immediately for his speed. A track star at Ohio State, Sheffield broke the team’s 60-meter dash, covering that distance in an insane 6.63 seconds.
Sheffield’s speed has been put to the test this season against a variety of fast receivers, and he’s held his own in most instances. Recall the Rams game, when Sheffield went step for step in man coverage against Robert Woods on a deep “Yankee” concept (a two-man deep crossing pattern where the underneath receiver runs a deep over-the-middle route and the other runs deep post over the top), forcing an incompletion.
Against the Saints, Sheffield’s ability to run was most fully on display. At the start of the third quarter, the Saints send Ted Ginn, himself a record-setting track star at Ohio State, on a deep seam route from the slot. Sheffield matches him the entire way in man coverage, staying in his hip pocket before turning to knock the ball away.
Ginn has long been regarded one of the fastest wide receivers in the NFL, and even if he’s a step slower now than when he entered the league in 2007, he provided a nice measuring stick for Sheffield.
“I know he’s got the record for the 100-meter hurdles at Ohio State, and I’ve got the record for the 60-meter (dash),” Sheffield said. “I did want to see how fast he was in person; it was cool.”
Sheffield passed that test, as he has many times in his first NFL season. But, notably, he’s now starting to ace some of those tests. According to Pro Football Focus, Sheffield earned a coverage grade of 89.9 for his performance against the Saints, which is just one-tenth of a point shy of an elite level grade.
Raheem Morris has been working closely with Sheffield these past few weeks, after he switched from working with the wide receivers to coaching the secondary following the Falcons’ bye week. Morris brings unique insight from working with the offense, but he has a long background of coaching defensive backs.
That complement of knowledge has been something Sheffield appreciates. Morris has provided information on how quarterbacks and receivers time certain routes and the nuances involved in that, as only someone who was coaching that at the beginning of the 2019 season could. And after he’s able to share insight on how the offense may think, Morris can call on his long experience coaching cornerbacks to help his players capitalize on that insight.
“It’s been great with coach (Morris),” Sheffield. “He’s giving me little tips and details about things as a corner; he’s got a lot of experience coaching corners and (defensive backs). He’s been great.”
During the Falcons’ two-game turnaround since the bye week, Morris’ influence has been clear. Against the Panthers, the Falcons forced four interceptions after entering the game with only two picks all season. The secondary has also provided more time for Atlanta’s pass rush, which has recorded 11 sacks in the last two games.
After allowing an average gain of 8.4 yards per pass play prior to their bye week, the Falcons held the Saints to 5 yards per pass play and the Panthers to 4.9 yards per pass play.
As Morris and his players continue to gain familiarity, there may be new aspects of this Atlanta secondary unlocked. Just by spending a couple of weeks with Sheffield, Morris gained a greater appreciation for one element of his game.
“I’m just fired up to see how the kid moves and how physical he is,” Morris said. “Working on the other side of the ball you see the talent, you see the speed. That’s clear, that’s obvious ... You don’t see the physicality, especially when you’re not particularly grading him and watching him from the other side of the ball. You do see him punch the ball out and get some of those things.”
Sheffield has 28 tackles this season, all but two of which have occurred in the last six weeks. At 5-foot-10 and 212 pounds, Sheffield isn’t the biggest corner, but he’s not the smallest, either. In Atlanta’s Week 2 win against the Eagles, Sheffield forced a fumble on the opening kickoff of the second half that turned into a 4-yard touchdown pass three plays later.
“Especially playing as a lockdown corner, you’ve got to be able to tackle,” Sheffield said. “I try to be as physical as I can, but not being overly physical. I’m just trying to do what I can do and go out there and ball out.”
And yet, as physically gifted as Sheffield might be, there’s something internal that Morris senses. Qualities that be just as important for Sheffield’s success in the NFL.
“He’s eager,” Morris said. “I love his meeting demeanor, he’s serious, he’s quiet, he’s confident. He’s got all of those things.”