Russell Wilson: Born a Scrambling Man

Trying to make a living and doing the best he can.

Lord Wilson, excuse me, Russell Wilson makes his NFL regular season début tomorrow. There has already been tremendous coverage here at Field Gulls so far on what he's shown this preseason and what he needs to accomplish to achieve success in the regular season and hopefully postseason. Most would agree that if he can consistently deliver from the pocket then greatness is a very achievable goal. That is not what this post is about.

Many might shy away from discussing his scrambling abilities because relying on scrambling is not a formula for consistent success. Further, saying he has something indefinable and special when on the move isn't really saying anything substantial. I think his scrambling abilities do make him special though and I noticed some things this preseason that will maybe help provide some context and understanding to the indefinable.

Evade and Deliver

We've seen the breakdown of this play before but I wanted to point out the angle he takes moving up the field once he's avoided the rush.

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I count about six yards he's gained and the defender who provided the original pressure no longer has any angle for pursuit. More importantly, the angle he's taken has kept the middle of the field open as a viable option - Wilson takes advantage. I feel that most QB's who could have escaped the pocket would have fled toward the sideline instead of up the field. Thus limiting their viable options. As you can see below, Wilson needed every bit of advantage he could gain to complete the pass to Martin.

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On this play against Denver we see Wilson take a similar course of action except he doesn't have a receiver open in the middle of the field.

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Wilson again presses the line of scrimmage and fires a laser to Cameron Morrah. The pass is on the money but not "where only Morrah can make a play on it." The DB has tight coverage and reaches in to tip it away. I still like Wilson's execution here though. His forward momentum keeps him from throwing across his body (accuracy) and maybe helps push the ball past the linebacker who's coming up in support (velocity). If Wilson had pump faked and scrambled then he would have had a better angle to freeze the 'backer and cut left, which we saw him make big gains doing several times this preseason.

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With Wilson, there seems to be a clear distinction between extending the play and biding time to find an open receiver. If anything, Wilson presses a decision to either run or throw. This limits the defense's ability to close off the side of the field he's scrambling to. I appreciate this approach because it's success rate seems less random. It should also encourage receivers to stick with their routes, even when there's consistent pressure and Wilson's frequently moving out of the pocket.

Wilson was great against the Chiefs about staying in the pocket and delivering the football. He wasn't flawless though. The Chiefs only rushed three on the third down play below and the pocket stayed clean. Yet Wilson fled right and missed an opportunity for an easy completion to Deon Butler for the first down. Instead he threw to Charly Martin, who was forced to elevate for the ball and was hit almost immediately. Wilson still converted the first down but preseason is about proper execution, not results.

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Move and Check-Down

These next two plays show how Wilson doesn't always look for the big gain once he breaks the pocket. Below, the defensive tackle beats Deuce Lutui inside (seen on the ground). Wilson quickly identifies the free rusher and buys just enough time to find Anthony McCoy, who has settled down in the flat, for a nice six yard gain.

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Here against the Chiefs, Wilson takes a three step drop looking left. The pressure immediately comes up the middle but he uses his line to find the open space in the pocket and hit Sean McGrath for a short gain.

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If Wilson had scrambled backward, as we've seen him do with deeper drops, he would have encountered the blitzing defensive back and the play could have easily broken down for the sack. Instead he moved lateral to the line of scrimmage and quickly got rid of the ball to his check down. Hopefully this indicates that he identified the blitz on his right edge despite initially looking for a receiver to his left. Good overall awareness if he did.

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Scramble, Scramble

On third and 8, this is a play where I wished Wilson had moved toward the sideline instead trying to scramble up the field. Would he have been able to find a receiver for a first down? Who knows. But he won't break that tackle against most starting defensive linemen and the 'backers were easily able to force a slide before the first down marker anyway.

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Here is an example against Denver of Wilson stepping up out of the pocket and scrambling for a productive gain on first down instead of trying to scramble right or buy time for a big play.

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You can see below that he still considers throwing the ball, but doesn't force anything and takes the easy yards. He also doesn't drift left the way many QBs would have in this situation. Apart from when actually needing a big play down the field, I'm perfectly fine with Wilson never drifting left. The body contortion needed to make an accurate throw when moving left generally slows the QB's pace and makes them liable to late pursuit strip sacks.

On a related note, every single time Wilson started scrambling left this preseason, he tucked the ball into his left hand and became a running back - every single time (in case you missed that part). I'm perfectly fine with that for the reason stated above.

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I love this next play. Wilson steps up evading the blitz, sees that his check-down is double covered to the right, and scrambles left to open grass for a big gain. Awesome.

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Sacks Moving Left

This is just a minor note but still another good reason to like him tucking the ball into his left hand when moving left. He didn't stand much of a chance in either of these and keeping the ball safely away from the defender helped prevent a sack from becoming a turnover.

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Throw-Aways

This final section will show you how he knows when to just throw it away and live to play another down, as Jaws might say (I really am sorry about reminding you he still exists). The play below is something of a missed opportunity through. There is some pressure but no free rusher and if he had stayed in a throwing stance then he could have easily shuffled right and moved up in the pocket, possibly finding an open receiver. Instead, he panics and squares his shoulders to the line of scrimmage before running for the hills.

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Thankfully he realizes that the play is lost as his momentum carries him backward and three defenders close in. That is not a miracle completion he throws there...

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This one is but that's not why I'm showing it to you. I like this play because he seems to know how far he must scramble to escape the tackle-box (estimated by the yellow line) in order to avoid intentional grounding.
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In a preseason game, I would have preferred that ball to just sail out of bounds. But well, at least he had the juevos to admit he was trying to throw it away in his post-game interview.

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I'm showing you this next play for a couple reasons. The first is a bad habit we'll have to keep an eye out for. Wilson locks onto the right side of the field and starts drifting that direction, presumably searching for a better line of sight... right into a near sack from a cleanly blocked defensive end. Now, there is a blitzing defensive back coming from his left, so hopefully that was what prompted his drift right. Still an undesirable habit though.

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Sometimes talent prevails over reason.

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Wilson considers pressing the line of scrimmage but sees the number of defenders in pursuit. So he continues his course toward the sideline and tries to find a receiver open down the field. He doesn't find one so he wisely throws the ball away.

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Non-conclusion

I have no real conclusion for you. I just wanted to point out a couple things I noticed on these scrambling plays. We'll have to wait and see if these things are real tendencies or just the randomness we generally associate scrambling with. I was definitely encouraged though and I'm at least moderately hopeful that Wilson will prove more efficient and safe on the move and less prone to the pitfalls suffered by other scrambling quarterbacks.

Let me know what you think and if you have any differing interpretations of the plays shown above. Lastly, in case you were wondering, Wilson didn't scramble on any plays in the Raider game.

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