Russell Wilson (and, Darrell Bevell) Sideshow Raheem'd Rob Ryan on Monday Night Football. The quasi-mulleted defensive coordinator, who has led a defensive renaissance in New Orleans this season, effectively dared Wilson to beat his blitz and coverage schemes over the top. And boy did Wilson beat them; beat them with a savage ferocity belied by his expressionless, cliche-spouting mug. He beat them like they were the unfortunate SOBs who'd roused Dr. Bruce Banner to anger. They didn't know. How could they? Everybody knows now.
I was skeptical about Ryan's defensive turnaround in New Orleans. But at the end of Monday night I felt like Wilson beat the hell out of a good defense -- not an overrated one. New Orleans' defense has some good (even enviable) young talent: Cameron Jordan, Akiem Hicks, and Junior Gallette all had moments where they beasted on our offensive line, particularly in the run game. Few defenses have been as effective at taking Marshawn Lynch away as Ryan's was, though many have tried. They just -- they didn't know Wilson had that in him.
The purpose of this post is to glean some meaning about Monday's game going forward. In terms of the 2013 season, the implications are obvious. Seattle now has the inside track on home-field throughout. But there are bigger, longer-term issues at play, specifically concerning Wilson.
Hawkblogger said it best earlier this season. (Quick aside: if you're not reading Hawkblogger then shame on you baby.)
He will make better choices over time. He will make better throws. He will learn to make throws that he does not currently make. Case in point, he worked on the back-shoulder throw all through training camp, and it has started to show up in games. That was not in his repertoire last season. He needs to improve on slants, rhythm throws where he gets rid of the ball at the top of his drop, and swing throws to his backs, among others.
Could he hit that back foot and let it go on in rhythm? That was the question coming into 2013. Hawkblogger mentions the back shoulder throws. I'm going to highlight his improvement on slants. These to throws are fundamental components of an effective intermediate passing game. You have to be able to hurt teams in 5-15 yard windows, especially on days when a less than stellar running game leaves you in passing downs.
After Monday night's game, Wilson identified his 3rd and 9 back shoulder completion to Jermaine Kearse as the most important play of the game. From a win probability added perspective, it had to pretty high. It kept the Saints from getting the ball with decent field position immediately, and obviously led to the half-ending score that broke the game open.
I'd argue that from a long-term perspective, one that looks at what Wilson's real ceiling is, an equally important throw happened earlier in the game. It was a simple slant to Golden Tate. In many respects it was a wholly unremarkable throw. But it couldn't be more important for Seahawks fans. It's akin to the moment you knew that King Felix could throw his breaking pitches for strikes behind in the count. That kind of growth -- in season two, mind you -- opens up the possibility (maybe even probability) of superstardom.
Remember, this is still a West Coast passing scheme fundamentally. The slant is to the WCO as the 18-foot jumper is to a power forward. If you're going to be really good, not just pretty good, you simply must have it in your arsenal. I'd suggest that coming into the season the slant was Wilson's worst throw.
A slant can be effective vs. man or zone. Even better, against zone a slant still allows for a fairly safe throw with run after catch potential. But to reach that potential it calls for fairly precise ball placement, ideally between top of the numbers and just above eye level. That placement allows the receiver to extend (rather than body catch), even against tight man coverage. That forces a defender to play over the top and through the receiver.
Last season, Wilson routinely threw the pass at the numbers, inviting more of a body catch. That gave defenders a better opportunity to disrupt the catch attempt (recall the 3rd down pass breakup on Tate last year at San Francisco). It also runs the risk of limiting run after catch opportunity if the receiver has to slow down at all.
Well, you probably have probably already surmised how this post is going to turn out. So I won't belabor it. Robo Wilson: (1) recognized the issue, (2) went back to the lab, (3) made some tweaks to his flux capacitor, and is now throwing indefensible darts.
Onto the screenshots. Below are two screenshots of slant throws that I think highlight his growth and improvement. I am cherry picking two throws to be sure, but I'm arguing that I have seen steady improvement on the throw this year. The two throws simply illustrate before and after.
Less Than Ideal Ball Placement (vs. Tennessee)
In week 6 versus Tennessee, Wilson's pass to Golden Tate was very well-defensed by the Titans' promising young corner, Alterraun Verner. This is by no means a poor throw, but against tight coverage it's entirely defensible. Verner in fact gets his hands on the ball and/or on Tate to break it up. The pass falls incomplete. Tate really didn't have a chance. If memory serves I think Verner did it again later in the game.
Contrast that throw to the one Tate catches versus New Orleans on Monday.
Better Ball Placement (vs. New Orleans)
The real difference is the higher trajectory on the second throw. I have seen a consistently eye-high trajectory on Wilson's slant throws as the season has progressed. Here we see softer coverage, but even against tighter coverage the defender would have had to play through Tate's right shoulder. That's a very difficult pass to defend without drawing a flag. On third and five--the "no man's land" of passing downs--that's exactly what you need. That's exactly what the WCO is designed to provide, against man or zone. If the route is run correctly, and the ball placement is correct the defense is practically irrelevant.
Coming into this season, and in fact well into it, Seattle has lacked consistency in its intermediate passing game. One of the many ways Wilson (and I should also mention Tate here) continues to astound us is in his passion for growing his game, and then his ability to actually do it.
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