I talked about the Russell Wilson seam pass to Braylon Edwards a little bit on twitter yesterday - the 17-yard shot into the endzone that Wilson took on 3rd and 4 early in the 2nd quarter - and when I brought it up, it created some really interesting discussion. Originally, I just started talking about it because, simply, that play was much closer than I had realized originally and it would have been a huge difference in the game. It was a 'bummer' moment where had Edwards been able to come down with that, it could have changed the course of the game. I wouldn't call it a 'drop' by Edwards by any means, he had two defenders draped on him and had to go up high to get it, but it was one of those plays that I know Braylon can and has made many times in his career - not only in games but on a daily basis in practice.
I mean, look at this g*ddamn photo:
Regardless, it brought up some interesting discussion about Russell Wilson's decision making and, as Davis Hsu put it, his need to develop a mid-range jumper and ability to use the short middle of the field a little bit more. I certainly don't disagree with that. In this instance, Wilson had Golden Tate slanting over the middle of the field underneath, and though it wouldn't have been a 'gimme', it, for most QBs, would have been a higher percentage play, likely, than what Wilson ended up throwing to Edwards.
Now, I'm not really looking to argue vehemently one way or another whether Wilson made the 'correct' or 'incorrect' call here in throwing it up to Edwards, because there are two distinct schools of thought on the play that both have merit. One, the 'go for it' school of thought where you applaud the aggressive, ballsy and opportunistic decision - the 'big play' mentality, and on the other hand, the 'pickup a first down and call this type of play on a 1st or 2nd down' type of school of thought - the conservative approach where you matriculate down the field and pick up first downs. They're both defensible.
For me, at this point in Wilson's career, I almost lean toward the seam shot being 'higher-percentage' than having him throw quick slants over the middle. Wilson is not a master on 3rd down, nor is he yet a master of the redzone. Most rookies are going to struggle in these areas, but Wilson's height is presents a hurdle that he will have to overcome and adapt to as he gets more experience in The League. The quick slants over the middle of the field are still and issue for him - Wilson hasn't completed many slants thus far for Seattle - though they did execute one perfectly to Golden Tate later in the game, which was dropped.
When Davis talked about the post-route touchdown shot to Sidney Rice in the New England game - a touchdown pass that ultimately meant the difference in the game, he brought up some interesting points about the game situation right before they took the shot:
A redzone finish was questionable, at best. At this point, Russell has thrown 5 of his 8 TD passes from outside the redzone, with redzone efficiency being among the league worst. The Patriots would blitz and Wilson would be forced to make play after play after play. Sacks and interceptions were lurking. Wilson is not Tom Brady and likely will never be Tom Brady. Few are. None are.
It would be like me playing multiple hands and multiple rounds of betting against an expert, professional poker player. I have a better chance of finding a decent hand and then going all in. Limit the number of plays.
So, as defenses clamp down once Seattle gets into the redzone, Wilson's efficiency dissipates and relatedly, Seattle's playcalling seems to get much more conservative. Perhaps, in this case, against a great defense, it was best to 'find a decent hand and go all in,' as Davis framed it.
As far as X's and O's of the play go, from a schematic point of view, this was the matchup - 6'3 Braylon Edwards on 6'1 Patrick Willis - that Wilson was looking for coming out of the huddle and for that reason, I cannot really fault him for taking his shot. Even more to Wilson's credit, he put the ball exactly where he needed it to be.
First though, let's talk about a little background on what Seattle did, scheme-wise.
Thomas Beekers, last season, talked about a struggling Mike Williams, and his possible role in the Seahawks' offense going forward. Beekers brought up the idea of moving BMW inside as a 'big slot' receiver.
BMW has good hands, a tremendous wingspan and great body control and coordination, which combines to give him his outstanding "put it up and he'll come down with it" ability. But on the other hand, he lacks burst and short-area quickness, and doesn't have noteworthy routerunning. This means he takes longer to top off most routes, and it leads to a lack of separation on most plays. And I don't mean that as a mild criticism, I mean it's a huge problem..."
"The prototype of the slot receiver is the small, shifty guy with excellent hands and routes. But as regular readers of my work know, I like keeping my eye on emerging trends and atypical types, because I firmly believe it's important to maximize talent by keeping an open mind to unconventional options. One of those trends is the emergence of the big slot, commonly WR/TE tweener types for teams that lack a Joker-type TE.
Marques Colston - a guy I like to bring up often when discussing BMW - is probably the prototype. Colston dropped to the 7th round because he lacked vertical route abilities, but he possesses a wide wingspang as a 6'4 receiver, as well as good hands and body control. But he didn't fit the mold of a starting wide receiver, so he dropped, and many thought he'd have to convert to tight end, but instead he's been the Saints' best, most reliable receiver, despite not being a WR1. Danny pointed out the Bills ran with a similar experiment, putting second-year UDFA David Nelson, all 6'5 215 lbs of him, in the slot, and got some very good results from it, especially in the redzone. Cosell recently noted he could see draft prospect Alshon Jeffery in a similar role.
The reason the big slot is so efficient is the same reason the pass-catching tight end haunts defensive coordinators - you're isolating huge guys on linebackers or nickel corners and that's an easy matchup if you can create it.
Obviously, after this article was published, Williams was released and Braylon Edwards was more or less signed as his replacement. The former Brown and 49er has been used sparingly thus far in the Seahawks' offense, but his core competency at this point in his career is that he's got a huge catch radius, and excellent body control to go up and high-point passes. He's a red-zone threat - and he's a guy they're starting to target in that area more often as he earns more time on the field. Will he be used more often in the slot, like the shot to him on Sunday? That's tough to know, but in my mind, it would make a ton of sense.
Pro Football Focus put together a piece on the different types of "slot receivers," and in their description of the "Marques Colstons", they pointed out:
... Scheme dictates which receiver plays in the slot. These taller receivers have the ability to run the short, move-the-chains routes, but they are used to stretch the field more often than their quick-and-shifty brethren.
Though he's suspended for the 2012 season, New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton has helped turn WR Marques Colston from a seventh-round pick to one of the most productive receivers in the league. Colston's 6'5" frame allows him to take advantage of smaller slot corners and safeties-and he does so in the underneath game fairly often - but it's the staple seam routes of the Saints offense that got Colston paid this offseason. With Drew Brees' great accuracy throwing down the field, the Saints love to throw deep passes to the slot.
Now - when people talk about Russell Wilson's career, many point out that Seattle may look to emulate things that New Orleans does with Drew Brees to mitigate his height disadvantage, and one of the staples of their offense is taking shots down the seam to the big slot receiver. Look up a highlight reel of Marques Colston's TD catches, and many look very similar to the play where Braylon Edwards nearly scored a touchdown on Sunday.
I don't know how much Seattle will look to emulate that, but I do know that one of Wilson's biggest strengths at this point in his career is the seam pass. As Greg Cosell put it in his FantasyGuru.com film notes following the Carolina game, the "Seahawks [have a] very limited pass game, [but] Russell Wilson [is an] excellent seam thrower when he has functional space."
Let's take a look at the play from an X's and O's perspective, because as I said above, I really do think that this was the matchup they were looking for out of the huddle.
Seahawks send Anthony McCoy, Evan Moore, Braylon Edwards, Sidney Rice, and Golden Tate into the huddle - "02" personnel, a look that I don't believe Seattle has used all too often. Much to the chagrin of Seahawks fans everywhere, Seattle comes out in an empty shotgun set in 3rd and 4, with Moore/McCoy out right and Tate, Rice and Edwards left.
San Francisco responds with their nickel defense - and after some confusion and semi-frantic communication on who to match up with, #25 Tarrell Brown ends up outside on Tate, #22 Carlos Rogers on Rice, and #29 Chris Culliver outside on McCoy on the other side. Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are the deep safeties, and #53 Navarro Bowman, #55 Ahmad Brooks, and #52 Patrick Willis are in at LB for San Fran. Willis, who is a great linebacker, both in run defense and pass coverage, gets the call to match up with Braylon Edwards. See the confusion and eventual matchups in the series of photos below.
Creating indecision or confusion from the defense is generally a good thing. In this case, San Francisco's linebackers are so good that it doesn't make as big of a mismatch as you'd see with about 30 other teams. Still - 6'3 Braylon Edwards on 6'1 Patrick Willis is still a matchup that you're looking to create.
McCoy runs an out-route to the sideline and Moore runs a corner route. Edwards will run the seam route up the middle, and Sidney Rice runs a corner to the other side, hoping to suck Dashon Goldson his way. Tate runs a slant underneath.
At the snap, Culliver sticks with McCoy to the right, Bowman and Whitner are sucked to the right to mark Moore running a corner route, and Rice and Tate are marked man-to-man with their opponents. Goldson sits on the Edwards route very nicely - he must decide whether to cover Rice as he runs a corner to his side or stay in the middle. As an opponent, you'd probably think that Rice would be the primary target in this situation.
Below, you see Goldson still looking in toward Wilson.
Goldson, unfortunately, doesn't bite even for a moment on the Sidney Rice route, and Wilson throws the ball to Edwards up the seam.
See how well Willis has stuck with Edwards, and now Goldson breaks on the pass as well.
Ball is located in the perfect spot for Edwards to win the 2-on-1 battle in this particular instance. The. Perfect. Location. If you're going to throw it into tight quarters or double coverage, you better damn well put it in the right spot. Wilson does.
Edwards has it until he comes down on Willis' helmet, jarring the ball loose. Good coverage by the Niners, a great throw by Wilson, a good attempt by Edwards. Bad luck that it hits Willis' helmet on the way down.
No dice. The Niners have an excellent secondary - in this case Dashon Goldson makes a nice play on the ball and contests it, Patrick Willis sticks with Edwards well, but even though it falls incomplete, I still find myself on the side that likes that Wilson is willing to pull the trigger on these throws. It was the matchup they wanted to create, it was a possible game-changing shot. It just didn't work out. Just barely didn't work out.
Anyway - I didn't even set out looking to make a big huge point about anything, it's just something to look for - using Braylon Edwards in the slot to create mismatches and to bring more options for the seam throw game outside of the tight end group, because you'd like to work to Russell Wilson's strengths. Seam throws are one of him biggest strengths.