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Old habits die hard, even for a great quarterback like Russell Wilson

Wild Card Round - Seattle Seahawks v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It was just over a year ago that the Seattle Seahawks cleaned house in their coaching room, and replaced offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell with Brian Schottenheimer. According to head coach Pete Carroll, one of the reasons Schottenheimer was brought in was to “challenge Russell like he’s never been challenged before.” This was on display for the majority of the 2018 season, as Russell displayed a level of quarterback mechanics and pocket discipline that he had not previously displayed.

However, against the Dallas Cowboys last Saturday night, some of Wilson’s old habits showed through and cost the team, specifically the depth of his drop in the pocket. Obviously, what I am about to go through is just a lone example from a single play, but this is something that I have been noting as a key improvement in Wilson’s game this season. Unfortunately for Seahawks fans, on multiple occasions last Saturday night he reverted to his pre-2018 self, and that contributed a small amount towards the team’s season ending.

The play we’re going to look at is the 3rd & 13 play on the second drive of the game. Here’s a look at the pre-snap alignment showing the Hawks in a five wide set with the Cowboys showing two high safeties and press coverage at the line.

Now, to lay out what the offense was trying to do, this play is a classic example of the route combinations that one will see in an Air Coryell system, so here are rough approximations of the routes on the play.

The play works exactly as it should have, as Mike Davis runs a route into the flat at the top of the screen after bumping Randy Gregory, while Ed Dickson works his way into the flat at the bottom of the screen. Doug Baldwin is in the slot, and he runs a curl to the sticks in the middle of the field, while Lockett runs a curl just past the sticks at the numbers on the near side. The receiver on the far side of the field runs a corner route.

To show what the defense did and how the play developed, here is a look at the play at the moment that Russell reaches the bottom of his drop.

It’s easy to see that the Cowboys have zero cares about the underneath stuff to either Dickson or Davis, and they will happily allow the Hawks to complete a pass to either of those two. Lockett may be coming open, and Baldwin does not look too open, while Jaron Brown is just about to break into a vast expanse of open real estate at the top of the screen.

In any case, let’s move forward a fraction of a second in the play in order to get a better view of how things developed in the secondary.

There we see two open options. If he had thrown the ball to Lockett prior to Lockett making his break back towards the line of scrimmage, the ball could arrive just as Lockett turns around and it’s a first down. However, I don’t think Lockett was his primary read on this play, so this is likely a no go. First, let me debunk the myth that some commenter is going to come in and argue before any commenters have the chance. Specifically, at least one of you is thinking that Wilson would never throw the ball to a receiver who hadn’t even turned his head yet. Well, if that’s the case, Wilson needs to better develop his rapport with his receivers and learn to do that. Just to prove my point, here’s an extreme example of Patrick Mahomes doing exactly that.

Back to the play at hand, however, and it’s irrelevant whether or not Wilson would throw it to Lockett on that play because he doesn’t seem to be the primary target. As I noted in an article following the victory over the Carolina Panthers, in Schottenheimer’s offense one way to find the primary read is to look at where the quarterback’s head goes once he reaches the bottom of his drop. Schotty’s quarterbacks will traditionally look off the safeties until they reach the bottom of their drop, and then their helmet will snap to the direction of the primary read.

In this case, as he is making his drop, Wilson’s helmet appears pointing in the direction of Lockett on that side of the field. As such, it’s my guess that he is not the primary read, and that makes sense based on the play design and defensive alignment. Here’s a look at Wilson from the end zone angle of the coaches film as he is making his drop, where the directionality of his helmet is visible.

Moving forward, let’s take a look at things at the moment that Wilson hits the bottom of his drop.

For those of you who have been following my work regularly through the season, there should be something that jumps out right away. Just in case it doesn’t, or for those who are newer readers, allow me to subtly highlight what immediately jumps right out to me.

Wilson’s back foot is at the ten yard line. As we saw prior to the snap, the line of scrimmage was the twenty yard line, and that means that Wilson took a ten yard drop.

I’ve harped on that and I’ve harped on that and I’ve harped on that to the point that I’m sure many of you are sick of me harping on it. However, there is zero question that a quarterback taking a ten yard drop makes the job of the offensive line providing adequate protection harder. And that is exactly what happened here.

Russell hits the bottom of his drop, he surveys the field, and he then nearly instantly feels pressure coming from Randy Gregory on the outside.

Gregory has beaten $12M left tackle Duane Brown right around the edge and has a clean path to Wilson. How did that happen? Quite simply, when a quarterback takes a ten yard drop, they are effectively signing their own pressure warrant. On this play, we can see that Ifedi and Brown are both eight yards behind the line of scrimmage, which is exactly where we’d expect them to be.

At eight yards deep a tackle has the leverage on a pass rusher because if the rusher attempts to go inside, the tackle can push them underneath and across the formation in front of the quarterback. If the rusher attempts to go around the tackle upfield, they are able to push the rusher further upfield and out of the quarterback’s way.

However, if a quarterback drops too deep (or too shallow), then this system breaks down. On this play Wilson is still at deeper than nine yards as Gregory is turning the corner.

That means Wilson is likely able to see and feel the pressure coming from that side. Thus, instead of being able to take a step forward and to his left while Brown gives Gregory a push upfield and across the formation, Wilson panics, tucks the ball and attempts to run through a lane where there will be multiple Dallas defenders waiting to take him down if he is able to make it through.

It’s irrelevant because Wilson doesn’t make it very far, with Gregory tripping him up for just a three yard gain. Now, before anybody wants to counter that quarterback drop depth is not that important to protection, let’s just take a look at a note about another team who is considered to have had a much improved offensive line this season.

“Lots of QBs end up at 10 yards depth ... only to their demise.” So, it’s not just me making a point of this, it’s others as well, and the percentage of dropbacks on which Wilson hit ten yards or deeper prior to this season was significant. Unfortunately, last Saturday in Dallas he once again dropped ten yards semi-regularly, and while that alone was not enough to cause the loss, it was representative not only of his execution, but of the entire offense’s execution throughout the course of the game.