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Russell Wilson continues to shred single high safety defenses

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San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Through the first twelve games of 2018 Russell Wilson has tossed 29 touchdown passes, and earlier this year I took a look at every scoring pass he had thrown through the first eight weeks of the season. Now seems like an opportune moment to look at each of the touchdown passes he has thrown in the five games since then.

I’ll simply start with his touchdown passes against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 9 and work my way forward.

Touchdown 17: Week 9 against the Los Angeles Chargers 7:02 in the first quarter against Cover-3 zone.

Touchdown 18: Week 9 against the Los Angeles Chargers 1:53 in the fourth quarter against Cover-3 zone.

Touchdown 19: Week 10 against the Los Angeles Rams 11:23 in the first quarter against a single high safety.

Touchdown 20: Week 10 against the Los Angeles Rams 4:27 in the third quarter against a single high safety.

Touchdown 21: Week 10 against the Los Angeles Rams 2:00 in the fourth quarter against cover-0 (no high safety).

Touchdown 22: Week 11 against the Green Bay Packers 8:07 in the second quarter against cover-0 (no high safety).

Touchdown 23: Week 11 against the Green Bay Packers 5:11 in the fourth quarter against a single high safety.

Touchdown 24: Week 12 against the Carolina Panthers 6:48 in the third quarter against two high safeties.

Touchdown 25: Week 12 against the Carolina Panthers 3:33 in the fourth quarter against a single high safety.

Touchdown 26: Week 13 against the San Francisco 49ers 1:32 in the first quarter against two high safeties.

Touchdown 27: Week 13 against the San Francisco 49ers 13:49 in the second quarter against cover-3.

Touchdown 28: Week 13 against the San Francisco 49ers 1:20 in the second quarter against cover-3.

Touchdown 29: Week 13 against the San Francisco 49ers 14:24 in the fourth quarter against cover-3.

In short, in looking at the 29 touchdown passes Wilson has tossed this season, only four of them have come when the defense was playing two high safeties. Further, the longest touchdown the Seahawks have thrown against a defense playing two high safeties has been twelve yards in length, while more than half of Wilson’s scoring tosses have come from 15 or more yards against a single high safety or no safety.

Why is that?

It’s simply the system. As I’ve noted multiple times throughout the course of the season, the Air Coryell system is designed to stress the defense by getting five receivers in the pattern and then attacking the weak part of the defense. In this system the pre-snap reads are vital, as they determine where the primary target is for the quarterback.

On Tuesday I took a look at why the Hawks keep running on second and long, and how the data seems to show that this may be no more than a function of how the safeties are aligning. In order to further support this idea that the pre-snap reads for this system dictate what the offense does, let’s take a look at Russell Wilson’s game log for 2018 and focus on his touchdown passes.

Russell Wilson 2018 Gamelog

Week Opp Cmp Att Cmp% TD Int Rate Sk Yds Yds
Week Opp Cmp Att Cmp% TD Int Rate Sk Yds Yds
1 Denver 19 33 57.58 3 2 92.7 6 56 5
2 Chicago 22 36 61.11 2 1 86.1 6 24 17
3 Dallas 16 26 61.54 2 0 109.8 2 10 -1
4 Arizona 19 26 73.08 0 0 90.5 2 12 21
5 Los Angeles Rams 13 21 61.9 3 0 132.5 2 15 0
6 Oakland 17 23 73.91 3 1 125.4 1 8 20
8 Detroit 14 17 82.35 3 0 158.3 2 11 15
9 Los Angeles Chargers 26 39 66.67 2 1 89.2 4 33 41
10 Los Angeles Rams 17 26 65.38 3 0 123.2 4 35 92
11 Green Bay Packers 21 31 67.74 2 0 110.3 3 20 17
12 Carolina Panthers 22 31 70.97 2 0 128.3 2 17 4
13 San Francisco 49ers 11 17 64.71 4 0 140.9 3 22 14

Looking at that, it becomes pretty apparent that Wilson has shredded defenses this season, but that Week 4 game against the Arizona Cardinals certainly stands out. What is up with Wilson having at least one touchdown pass in every game except against one of the worst teams in the NFL? Well, for that, let’s flip on some film and look at how Arizona lined up defensively against the Hawks. Here is how they aligned defensively on the first five plays of the game.

The first four of those plays were runs, with the Hawks only running out of the five wide formation with no back in the backfield for Wilson to give the ball to. What is readily apparent is that even when the Cardinals are playing with just a single deep safety, they are playing a soft zone.

That is what Arizona does under head coach Steve Wilks. Wilks was hired by the Cardinals from the Carolina Panthers where he coached under Ron Rivera. Rivera and Wilks first worked together for the Chicago Bears under Lovie Smith, and where they ran the Tampa-2 that Smith had learned under Tony Dungy. In short, the Tampa-2 is the defense that typically gives the Air Coryell offense the most problems because it takes away the deep pass and forces the offense to repeatedly execute and work down the field in chunks. It’s basically the same concept as Pete Carroll’s cover-3, but the Tampa-2 doesn’t require an All World safety with insane range like Earl Thomas to be successful because the safeties have less ground to cover.

During the 1999 NFL season when the St. Louis Rams and their greatest show on turf were lighting up the scoreboard, NFL teams averaged 20.8 points per game. The Rams that season averaged 32.9 points per game, and were held under that league average of 20.8 points only once. That lone game where the Rams were held below league average? It was the NFC Championship game against the All World defense of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which, of course, ran the Tampa-2 under Tony Dungy.

Getting back to the Week 4 game against the Cardinals, let’s take a look at Russell Wilson’s passing chart against the Cards, courtesy of NFL’s Next Gen Stats.

That’s a whole lot of short passes, and only one attempt deeper than 12 yards. What happened on that lone deep pass attempt? Was there a coverage breakdown? Was it a scramble drill play? Well, let’s take a look at the defensive alignment when the ball was snapped.

Simply put, on the one play where Wilson tried to complete a pass of deeper than 12 yards, the Cardinals were not in a soft zone. So, what happened after that? The Cardinals went right back to their soft zone alignment, as is seen on the pre-snap alignment for the next five plays.

Why am I going into all of this heading into the Monday Night Football game against the Minnesota Vikings?

Well, simply put, and as I’ll look at more over the next several days, the Vikings do a mixture of things which could give the Seahawks offense problems. Does that mean they’ll shut down the Hawks? Not at all.

It just means that the Hawks will need to be on their game and ready to execute.