My immediate thought after Seattle Seahawk’s 27-24 defeat to the Denver Broncos was that Russell Wilson had a bad game. This was despite his passer rating of 92.7, his 9 yards per attempt and his three touchdowns. I felt everything he hit was one- or first-read, that he couldn’t operate well within a structure and that he sacked himself.
When watching the All-22—a football nerd’s enlightenment—my initial takeaways were confirmed. I had a Han Solo in The Force Awakens moment:
When all the Russell Wilson observations you made without All-22 are confirmed with All-22 pic.twitter.com/AX3vEYBCSS— Matty Brown (@mattyfbrown) September 12, 2018
When the all 22 hits and you can finally see pic.twitter.com/X68GiyGO6J— Sean Clement (@SeanFromSeabeck) September 12, 2018
I feel comic relief is necessary, because writing that Wilson has negatives in his game is a ‘Seahawks sin.’ Criticizing Wilson is controversial among fans. Pete Carroll didn’t have to answer a single Wilson question last Sunday. And critiquing Wilson is something that isn’t even done by the coaches themselves—if you believe some disgruntled ex-Seahawks.
Indeed, the appointment of Brian Schottenheimer came with a strong message from Carroll. He wanted Schottenheimer to hold Wilson far more accountable. Carroll himself criticized his quarterback on his Monday 710 ESPN radio show:
“He can play way better. He could have gotten us out of some issues early by getting rid of the football a couple times. But things got taken away and so he got resourceful like he’s going to do. He knows. And we talked about it last night.”
Admittedly, Wilson was sluggish in the opening games of 2017 and 2016. In that pair of showings, he combined for 72-111, 667 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and a 79.67 passer rating.
But these bad habits and traits I speak of were on display all of last year. Wilson’s career-best statistics in near-impossible conditions should not blind us from the actual performances he put on tape. In actuality, it can be argued that 2017 was Wilson’s worst as a pro from a technique and process standpoint.
He carried his team remarkably, in a situation where no other quarterback could. Nonetheless, the terrible pass protection saw him add deeply disturbing aspects to his game, such as a scrambled internal clock and bizarre decisions. He was fortunate not to have 20+ interceptions last season.
This Denver game has me worrying that those issues remain—behind what is better protection and within a refreshed scheme. For this reason, I think these signs are more than early season cobwebs. On a more macro level, it also raises some reasonable questions about how Wilson will fare as a signal-caller as he continues to age.
Of Wilson’s 19 completions against the Broncos, 12 of the passes were either a one-read play or a first-read. A one-read play would be stuff like a bubble screen or a running back slip screen. His first-read plays were things like the big play-action targets to Will Dissly or the backshoulder versus off-man coverage to Brandon Marshall. Beautifully placed throws, sure, but not the result of advanced processing.
Three of the remaining seven completed tosses were checkdowns. That leaves just four plays where Wilson made multiple reads to move the ball downfield. You can point towards successful game-planning as a reason for the large proportion of the first-read or one-read passes. That’s fair.
Nevertheless, Wilson is a quarterback who has two processing issues. One is reading zone defense. The other is locking on to his first read and taking too long to move on to his second. This is particularly common when he is looking to go deep against man coverage.
On this 3rd and 7, Wilson fools for the disguised cover 2. He thinks the Broncos are bringing the house, so tries to throw to Marshall hot. The pre-snap process is understandable.
However, following through with the decision is not. This pre-determination features a dreadful, floating pass that he lobs off his backfoot. At no point does he register the dropping underneath defender, instead trying to look off a non-existent single-high safety for what he thinks is a cover 1 heavy blitz.
Wilson’s lack of awareness extends to his pre-snap cadence too. He is fake hiking as Justin Britt is adjusting the protection. To a defense, that is nowhere close to believable trickery. This tweet of Britt talking cadence with Wilson interested me:
I've always been concerned with Wilson's cadence/hard count. Here is Britt and Brown telling Russ to try not to break the rhythm of his cadence during Week 1 game. pic.twitter.com/ZIlIwTH96m— hawkschronicle (@HawksChronicle) September 11, 2018
On another third down, this time third and three earlier later in the first, Wilson showed a lack of anticipation. This may stem from a slowness in processing against zone. He knows the boundary side coverage is zone from Tyler Lockett’s pre-snap motion being unfollowed by the defense.
Yet, after correctly choosing not to throw to Dissly’s drag route over the middle, Wilson delays a crucial extra moment trying to make sure the hook zone of the linebacker isn’t robbing the quick out route. With better anticipation/faster processing, Wilson chooses this open pass faster and it isn’t tipped at the line of scrimmage.
As it was, he hesitated, allowing defensive tackle Adam Gotsis to get hands to the pass. The outcome is a missed opportunity via an incompletion.
The next play is an example of Wilson’s issues with locking on versus man. It’s the first snap of the Seahawks’ 2018 offense. They’ll have spoken about setting the tone, doing things as they mean to go on and executing as a unit.
And then Wilson’s slow processing saw him get sacked. Seattle’s play-action scissors concept involves a seven-man protection with a full slide to the left—in order to sell the run design and buy Wilson time.
Denver runs cover 1—which scissors eats for breakfast, lunch and dinner. What the protection scheme doesn’t account for is the Broncos sending their nearside corner after no receiver enters his vicinity. That means the corner is unblocked and heading for Wilson.
Still, Wilson should still make this play. With a clear passing lane for either route, he gets caught staring down the inside-to-outside route of slot receiver Tyler Lockett. It’s like he is willing that option open.
As soon as Wilson sees the clear man coverage and the deep safety drive over the top of Lockett’s route, he should switch to the open over route of outside receiver Doug Baldwin. After all it’s how the two-route concept is designed.
Wilson doesn’t get close to this outcome. Rather than progressing or even keeping his eyes downfield, his eyes duck to the rush and the Seahawks offense gets off to a terrible start to the season. It should have been a great beginning.
Playing in Structure
Wilson is at his best working outside a play’s structure and extending it. But, as will be covered in more detail, his favored backside escape style is exploited by defensive coordinators and he doesn’t have the speed to consistently outrun EDGEs anymore.
In Week 1, the structure of one-read play-action plays really helped him, but he struggled on non-play-action dropbacks. He has had difficulty with operating consistently in structure throughout his career.
The Seahawks have been trying to develop Wilson as more of a pocket passer who operates in a structure for some time. The partial remit of Schottenheimer will be to hone more of these skills. Although at 30-years-old, maybe this is just who Wilson is. How much can a quarterback really learn at this age?
Right after that disappointing sack on the play-action scissors, Schottenheimer attempted to get the offense back to a rhythm with a quick passing concept. It’s effectively a switch spot concept, a simple hi-lo designed to separate against man or zone for fast yardage.
Denver runs a cover 1 press pass defense, with a switch in man coverage to negate the rub that the Seahawks were planning in their route concept. Wilson, after looking left and registering the man defense, has his first read, the quick hitch to Baldwin, taken away.
That shouldn’t be an issue though. After all, it’s a hi-lo concept. He just needs to progress to Will Dissly’s deeper hitch and hit it for a nice gain. Dissly has all the leverage for the inside throw.
This is where things get concerning. Wilson barely glances at the open target, and then senses ghost pressure. The protection is perfect for the quick passing concept. Wilson has a clear lane to see and find Dissly. The ball should be out sharp.
That’s not the case here. Wilson’s ‘feel’ of the supposed pressure sees him scramble backwards and then right in an attempt to extend the play, rather than staying within the structure. His clock is frazzled more than the bacon I had this morning and his reads are broken; on the second play of 2018! The eventual throw to Dissly falls incomplete.
In Part II, I’ll go over Wilson’s mechanics, Wilson against the blitz, and his pocket awareness.