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Russell Wilson should exploit Eagles defense across the middle

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Philadelphia’s side has allowed as many touchdowns on throws to every other part of the field combined as it has on throws inside the box—an area the Seahawks quarterback is starting to warm up to in 2017

Washington Redskins v Seattle Seahawk Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

The reason getting most juice for why the Philadelphia Eagles currently stand as the class of the NFC is improved play from second-year quarterback Carson Wentz. But the Eagles’ 10-1 record in 2017 is bolstered as much by its top-three defense, with improved run-stopping up front and superior cornerback play from newcomer Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills, a 2016 seventh round pick who developed after spending his rookie year behind Leodis McKelvin.

With those two corners manning the boundaries (plus Patrick Robinson in relief of Darby earlier in the year), Philadelphia is fourth in DVOA against passes to the right side and third against passes to the left. Eight other teams can credibly claim to shut down one side or the other, defined by top-five pass defense on either the right or the left—only the Eagles do so in both areas. Darby’s former club, the Buffalo Bills (ranked seventh on both sides), is the closest team with such balance at a nearly-elite level. But where Buffalo is also ranked fifth against passes to the middle of the defense, this territory shows up as Philly’s weak spot: Football Outsiders ranks the Eagles just 17th defending passes to the middle. That’s not terrible—it’s close to average—but stands out compared to their superiority elsewhere.

Put another way, Philadelphia is allowing exactly 10 yards per pass attempt across the middle compared to 5.7 yards per attempt toward the boundaries. That seems like an advantage Russell Wilson might want to press when attacking the Eagles’ coverage.

Philadelphia is now playing without middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, who went on injured reserve with a ruptured Achilles in November, leaving redshirt rookie Joe Walker to depend more on help from coverage ’backers Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks, with Bradham taking over the middle in nickel, and safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. The Eagles also signed veteran Dannell Ellerbe three weeks ago to reinforce the linebacking corps, but Ellerbe has not played in a game. However, Philadelphia’s opponents haven’t done much to exploit that vulnerability, trying just 14 passes in that direction since Hicks’s departure—in part perhaps because two of the quarterbacks the team faced since then were Brock Osweiler and Mitch Trubisky. Dak Prescott went 5-10 with three interceptions targeting the middle of the field in week 11.

Indeed, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has done a lot with scheme to discourage his counterparts from finding this weakness all year—one reason Philly’s lower ranking in that area hasn’t hurt the unit is just 17 percent of passes against the Eagles came to that region of the field, fewest in the league. Here is a visualization from Warren Sharp’s football stats page:

But apart from that meltdown game by Prescott, the Eagles have allowed seven touchdowns thrown to the middle against just one interception. The rest of the field—83 percent of all opponent passes—has generated seven touchdowns but 15 interceptions. I’m sure Schwartz will again try to force Wilson to throw at the corners, and Wilson will most likely take what the defense gives him. The challenge then will be for the Seattle Seahawks offense to craft ways to create openings to that middle area, for which Jimmy Graham and Doug Baldwin will be instrumental as always.

I’ve written in the past about how Wilson tends to avoid throwing to the “short” part of the middle of the field—that is, the territory less than 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That’s a hard zone to throw to for any quarterback, because it’s where the linebackers hang out: It’s more crowded. But it may also be specifically more difficult for Wilson to angle passes into that short middle area, whether because he doesn’t see it as well (because of his height) or because his release point is lower than other passers (again, he’s short). Or maybe it’s not a physical cause, and it’s rather just the shape of the Seahawks offense. Either way Wilson has thrown relatively less often in that direction than other quarterbacks—for his career only 15.3 of his passes are aimed at the short middle, compared to 19.1 percent of all NFL passes from 2012 to 2017—and the same issue does not seem to restrict Wilson’s deep passing: His percentage of throws over the deep part of the middle is identical to the league proportion (4.3 percent) during the time frame.

However it’s not as if Wilson is inefficient on those throws: His career completion percentage to the short middle is 72 percent for eight yards per attempt and a passer rating of 104.9. And in 2017 Wilson is looking that way more often: His percentage of throws to the short middle is up to 17.1 percent, closer to the NFL average that remains steady at 19.3 percent to that region. Meanwhile Wilson is also throwing deep in the middle more than ever (7.4 percent of passes while the league standard is just 3.8 percent this year). Here again are some more Sharp Football charts:

(Note how what the deep passes lose in likelihood of completion they can gain back in value per throw; Wilson’s deep middle tosses earn 9.3 yards per attempt in 2017.)

Anyway there’s one more reason to believe Wilson should try to attack the soft-ish center of the Philadelphia defense, and that’s free safety Rodney McLeod. Wilson squared off against McLeod six times while McLeod started for the St. Louis Rams from 2013 to 2015, and though Wilson’s numbers against the Rams were average everywhere else on the field (7.1 yards per attempt, matching exactly what St. Louis gave up to every other quarterback during those years), he was able to toast the Rams regularly across the middle—for 11.5 yards per attempt and a 108.3 passer rating, higher figures than any other quarterback against St. Louis targeting that zone at least 15 times during the period (Wilson had 30 such attempts). In 2016, the Rams went to L.A. and McLeod joined the Eagles—and again Wilson found success, going 3-5 for 45 yards just over the middle area where McLeod was playing centerfield, either directly or backing up the coverage. Wilson also exploited McLeod’s other deep responsibilities, completing four passes more than 30 yards downfield on the day—two to Baldwin, one to Graham and another to Tyler Lockett.

Seattle will hope Wilson can reproduce this good fortune against McLeod and work the Philly defense where it’s most sensitive. If the Eagles are as effective against the run as most Seahawks opponents this season, routine short passes to the middle may be a useful alternative for softening the formations in other parts of the field—which could again further open the chance to slice them deep. If Philadelphia’s offense puts pressure on Seattle to score frequently, that may become Wilson’s and the Seahawks’ best path to keep up.