I was fortunate enough to make my (kinda) bi-annual pilgrimage to Seattle to catch the game. What a great town and just a majestic venue.
For this episode of Closing the Book I want to take a closer look at Russell Wilson vs. the Giants, specifically in the passing game. It's apparent that he has struggled to make accurate throws in the flow of the offense throughout this season, especially the past three weeks. This is despite being an accurate passer over his career.
Before getting into Wilson though, a few words about Seattle's offense overall. It's not always pretty to look at, but it is pretty potent. For all the justifiable hand-wringing about the absence of Sidney Rice and Golden Tate, and the losses of Zach Miller and Percy Harvin, much less the revolving door on the offensive line, Seattle's 240 total points are 7th in the league.
They've scored 26, 27*, 23, 28*, 13*, 30, and 38 points. (The asterisks denote road games.) That's 23 points on the board in every game save one, and that's without unduly benefiting from turnovers or return scores. On a per drive basis, Seattle is a middle-of-the-pack 15th in plays run, but 8th in yards and 6th in points. Seattle is 5th in weighted offensive DVOA, #1 in rushing.
This is a top 10 offense by any serious measure, folks. Let's make sure we remember that as context.
I was concerned about the Giants defensively after Tom Coughlin put together a solid defensive gameplan in 2013. Seattle's defense was just so dominant in that game the offensive inefficiency didn't matter, but the G-men held Lynch to 2.9 ypc and under 50 yards. Wilson threw for barely over 200 yards with a QBR of just 49.1. He was the leading rusher at 50 yards. Common sense dictated that the Giants would once again sell out to stop Lynch and make Wilson beat them through the air. With a not quite so dominant defense, shaky pass pro, and a gaggle of young receivers still finding their way, the "Stop Lynch, and make Seattle throw to win" plan seemed just crazy enough to work.
The G-men, as it happens, obliged us by never actually executing the "Stop Lynch" phase of their crazy plan. They did, however, manage to make Wilson beat them. And he did beat them--repeatedly--but with read option and bootleg runs, not passes. He gained 107 yards on just 14 carries, and probably gave away a good 10+ additional yards by (wisely) sliding well in front of defenders on many carries. (I speculate that he's received a stern talking to from the staff about ending his practice of sliding at defenders' shins like he's breaking up a dang double play.)
It was a phenomenal performance overall, which is the good news. But since it's the bad news that can kill you, I want to look at Wilson's passing performance against the Giants. He was pretty ho hum in the abstract. (10 of 17 for 172, with 2 picks and a fumble.) But for the third consecutive week he badly missed some easy(ish) throws. At least two misses were sure touchdowns.
I will say up front that I see this as just a slump that Wilson will work his way through. Sometimes slumps are nothing more than just random variance in performance. At other times, specific issues contribute to sub par play. Mostly slumps are a bit of both. For this piece I'll highlight three things I saw contribute to Wilson's erratic throws over the past several games, using plays from the Giants game to illustrate.
Factor 1: Inconsistent Footwork
In any sport where you throw, "shoot," or hurl an object at a target, accuracy (or lack of it) starts with footwork. This first quarter overthrow that missed a wide open Kearse by five+ yards and hit at the end line is your classic overstride.
Note how widespread Wilson's feet are as he sets to launch this throw. He had already taken a hopstep just prior to the image on the screen. He then cranked up like he thought it was a much longer throw, or like he woke up this morning with Matt Flynn's arm, and just riiiipppeed it. It left me scratching my head because Russell Wilson just doesn't miss this throw. I'm not sure if there was wind at his back heading toward that end zone, he just misjudged distance, or what. But when your goal on offense is to only throw 20 or so times you just cannot miss a throw with this much margin for error.
Factor 2: Trust & Experience with Receivers
This incomplete pass to Paul Richardson in the endzone is simply the kind of thing you have to live through as a QB and receiver learn each other. Richardson beat his man. Wilson had good protection and stepped up out of pressure and toward a helpless spy. This should be an easy score. The pass looks off target because (at least in my reading of the play) it looks as if Wilson and Richardson are not exactly of like mind.
As Wilson steps up things look great. The ball comes off his hand cleanly. He throws it low so that only his guy gets it, or it's incomplete. So what happened? Wilson I think expects Richardson to work back towards him just a bit, just based on the cone down trajectory of the throw. Safety is paramount in Wilson's read of the situation--tie ball game, 4th quarter, duh.
He wants Richardson to force the defender to play through him to make a play. Wilson also doesn't want to lead Richardson into the other defender's zone. Wilson's read is likely the most proper, as it dots all the i's and crosses all the t's. (Would we really expect Wilson to read things a different way?)
Meanwhile, Richardson's perfectly legitimate read is just a tad less cautious. He badly beat his defender and thus drifts to the open area, expecting Wilson to lead him. The other defender is realistically not a factor. So neither player's read is exactly wrong here, but just that ever so slight bit of hesitation is enough to make a pass intended to hit a stationary Richardson at the knees (standing on the "s") end up slightly behind a moving Richardson on his knees behind the "s".
Factor 3: Wind or WTF?
Below is Wilson's interception (Demps) where he targets Doug Baldwin down the field from the all-22 view.
Russell Wilson doesn't need anyone on Field Gulls to make up excuses for a poor throw. If he meant to throw this pass to that spot then this was Bad Idea Jeans bad. I just honestly wonder if wind wasn't a factor. It wasn't howling by any stretch of the imagination, but the throw just hung up there with nothing on it. More to the point, it wasn't even close to the open area, which is in the corner against a basic twin safeties coverage that Demps did nothing to disguise.
Nothing here concerns me. As I noted, this is a slump and nothing more until we have reason to suspect otherwise. That said, the key to the season in my opinion is how much the offense progresses. As good as it is right now, it still has a good bit of upside. Cleaning up the little things, and most importantly, capitalizing on chances for explosive/scoring plays in the passing game will determine just how far this team goes.