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Neanderball: Russell Wilson’s Evil Twin, Part I

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Wilson has an evil twin - or more accurately, a clone. I’m reasonably confident this extra Wilson is the result of the Seattle quarterback’s use of a Calvin and Hobbes-style duplicator, which the more engineering-oriented Field Gulls readers will recognize as a transmogrifier turned on its side.

No doubt eager for the occasional break from a harsh life of carrying his team to winning seasons while being overlooked for the MVP award, I put it to you that Russell Wilson occasionally uses a duplicator to get out of doing his homework, i.e. playing NFL games.

When Wilson’s duplicate is on the field and Original Russ is on a beach somewhere giving press conferences to assorted intertidal wildlife, the Seattle Seahawks are not necessarily doomed, but there are a few tells that reveal his absence: an uptick in inaccurate throws, a tendency to fixate on the receiver Wilson wants instead of the receiver the defense is giving him, to hold the ball and take a sack instead of throw it away and give up on the play, to scramble instead of stay in the pocket, and to run for yards instead of pass.

Even with all these deficiencies, Wilson’s evil twin isn’t a bad quarterback: he’s simply good instead of great. Sometimes, though, like against the L.A. Rams on Sunday, the rest of the team isn’t great either, and a merely “good” quarterback isn’t good enough.

Drive 1 (Q1 15:00, Seahawks 0 Rams 0)

1st and 15. After an illegal formation penalty, the Seahawks open festivities with a screen pass to Tyler Lockett. This play was just never going to work as drawn up. Jacob Hollister motions across the formation to act as a lead blocker, but outside linebacker Cory Littleton moves with him, and the result is that there are just too many Rams defenders on the left side for Lockett to be reasonably expected to gain any yards.

2nd and 13. There’s nothing fancy about this play: Josh Gordon is a Ferrari the Seahawks bought in a yard sale and then, maybe not believing their own luck, decided to leave in the garage. Here he’s left one on one against cornerback Troy Hill, dusts Hill with a sharp cut at the top of his route, and makes the easy catch for 11 yards.

I’m not exactly an NFL personnel guy, but it seems like a useful rule of thumb that dudes who make other dudes flail their arms in panic deserve as much playing time as possible.

There is no earthly reason all Seahawks three-receiver sets shouldn’t be Lockett, Metcalf, and Gordon. Once Gordon knows the whole playbook and Wilson trusts him, their B team of Malik Turner, David Moore, and Jaron Brown should never see the field again outside of four and five-receiver sets, and there’s no reason not to give Gordon a contract at the end of the season.

Someone out there is overthinking it as I speak. I can hear you, whoever you are. Stop it.

3rd and 2. This play is indistinguishable from the first play of the game, the one erased by the illegal formation penalty. On the first iteration of Groundhog Day, Mike Iupati jumped downfield and left Duane Brown alone with defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day managed to shed Joey Hunt to combine for the tackle. This time Iupati stays home, and he and Brown erase Donald from the play. Joseph-Day moves Hunt the same amount to attempt the same arm tackle, but there’s that little bit more daylight for Chris Carson, who blasts through the arm tackle for 7 yards. Here they are, back to back:

1st and 10. Ah, the simple joy of play action: watch the Rams linebackers bite on a Carson run to the left and Malik Turner break on a crossing route behind them. Watch the slapstick pandemonium as, like a slightly comedic villainous duo, the Rams linebackers trip each other up in their attempt to unbite on the Carson run fake, and Turner catches the easy pass for 10 yards and a first down.

1st and 10. This play is distilled, 120-proof Schotty chicanery, and I want you to enjoy every second of it.

Seattle lines up two receivers on the left side of the field, and then has them run deep crossing routes to draw off the defensive backs. Wilson fakes a handoff to Rashaad Penny to the left, and when linebacker Cory Littleton sees the fake, he stops on a dime and starts running the other way to help cover one of the aforementioned crossing routes. Meanwhile, Iupati, Fluker, and Hunt all quietly allow themselves to be beaten on their blocks and drift to the left. Penny has also leaked out, and when he catches the short pass, there’s over 1,000 pounds of blocker in front of him. Two blockers crack back on the closest defensive lineman, and Iupati escorts Penny downfield. If Iupati had realized how fast Penny was moving and had blocked forward instead of looking sideways, this might have gone for a touchdown. As it stands, Penny - who sustained a season-ending ACL injury on this play - picks up 16 yards.

1st and 10. This run play didn’t account for the speed of outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., who very much accounted for this run play. Everything else worked perfectly: tight end Tyrone Swoopes, filling in for injured fullback Nick Bellore, crosses the formation and takes out Clay Matthews, and Jacob Hollister and Germain Ifedi seal the right edge. Fowler drags down Carson from behind, turning a respectable 6 yard run into a mere 3 yards.

2nd and 7. There’s been a lot of Twitter talk this week about the league supposedly “solving” Brian Schottenheimer - a take I find manifestly absurd. The idea is that by posting two safeties deep, opposing defenses can induce the Seahawks to abandon the deep pass and run the ball, which according to this theory spells their doom. It’s true that Seattle runs more when opposing defenses sandbag the deep pass, but ask the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive coordinator how well that works out - you can find him by looking for the somewhat embarrassed-looking man with the purple ball cap and the cleat marks on his face.

What’s false is that the Seahawks stop throwing the football: here, DK Metcalf runs a crosser and finds the seam in the zone coverage. He picks up 9 yards, and I for one am quite alright with repeatedly running that kind of intermediate passing scheme until the extra deep safety is forced to stop picking his nose and come upfield to help.

1st and 10. Wilson’s evil twin makes his first appearance: a bad screen pass to Carson ends a play before it began that, based on the how the blocking was unfolding, could have done some serious damage.

2nd and 10. Hunt, Iupati, and Fluker run a trap blocking scheme to perfection, and Carson picks up 7 easy yards.

3rd and 3. Wilson’s evil twin makes his second appearance: a bust in the coverage leaves Lockett wide open across the middle of the field for a certain first down and probably a touchdown - but Wilson spots what looks like open turf in front of him and, mesmerized, pulls the ball down to run.

Unfortunately for Wilson, that inviting green space only exists because the Rams defensive line is running a stunt, and it’s about to be filled by outside linebacker Samson Ebukam. The sack ends the drive and forces a field goal.

Drive 2 (Q1 5:08, Seahawks 3 Rams 7)

1st and 10. Seattle continues to call zone runs to the right, away from Aaron Donald, and Los Angeles still doesn’t have a good answer. Carson picks up five yards on a solid block by George Fant.

2nd and 5. Something went wrong on this run, and I expect it’s temporary fullback Tyrone Swoopes being a heartbeat late on his motion behind the line of scrimmage. the result is that instead of blocking Clay Matthews, Swoopes body-checks Carson into Clay Matthews. Also a possible factor: Aaron Donald has relocated to the right side of the line in search of more havoc to cause, and jackhammers through Ifedi just as Swoopes runs past. Carson heroically turns a tackle for a loss into a 3-yard gain.

3rd and 2. I do not like Iupati’s work here. On a run where the Hawks needed only two yards, Iupati very much took himself out of the play by choosing the wrong target. That said, the lion’s share of the blame goes to Hunt, who is once again manhandled by Joseph-Day, the defender who made the lion’s share of the tackle.

Drive 3 (Q2 11:28 Seahawks 3 Rams 14)

1st and 10. I thought Wilson could have had Lockett or Gordon for a big completion on this play, but the naked screen pass to Carson works well enough: cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman diagnoses and breaks on it with serious speed, but Carson shames him with what Percy Harvin used to call a “hezzy” and picks up five.

2nd and 5. The Rams temporarily abandon the two-high safety concept and Wilson immediately punishes them with a 15-yard completion to David Moore. Notice free safety Eric Weddle take just a heartbeat too long to break over the top of Moore’s in route: that’s all it takes.

1st and 10. Los Angeles stays with a single-high safety, and Wilson continues to chew through their secondary like that Japanese guy who keeps winning hot-dog eating competitions: Metcalf runs a comeback route that leaves cornerback Jalen Ramsey marooned on a desert island, and another 12 yards goes onto the stat sheet.

1st and 10. The Rams finally relent and post their second safety deep, and the Seahawks respond by handing the ball to Carson, who rips through the newly lightened defensive front like a hot knife through a churned emulsion of fat globules, minerals, dissolved carbohydrates and protein aggregates.

I mean, yes, I could just say “butter”, but I think the Rams defense felt more like assorted fat globules and protein aggregates than anything as composed and valuable as “butter” by the time Carson decided he’d finished making his point. Credit to George Fant for quietly obliterating Robey-Coleman to make Carson’s forward progress appear that much more inevitable.

1st and 10. Wilson’s evil twin twirls his evil mustache. Wilson has first Metcalf, and then Hollister come open, but spooks when Aaron Donald appears to beat his block, unnecessarily flees the pocket, and throws it away.

2nd and 10. Fluker and Ifedi grossly mishandle this stunt by Aaron Donald and Dante Fowler. The real damage isn’t Donald slicing between the two of them: it’s Fluker desperately attempting to stick with him, which then acts as a natural pick when Ifedi tries to follow Fowler inside. Had Fluker just let Donald run free when the initial block failed, he and Ifedi could have easily doubled Fowler, which would have been enough to leave C.J. Prosise clean.

Instead, Fowler is free to leap across the rear of the line of scrimmage and tackle Prosise, like a lion bringing down a tourist who’d just stepped out of the Range Rover to find a bathroom.

3rd and 8. I don’t like underneath throws on third and long, but the reality is that it’s a down and distance that puts the defense in a position to dictate what’s open and what’s not, because the offense has a very obvious need. The defense gives Wilson an opening for a 7-yard completion to Lockett by removing anything deeper, and Wilson takes it instead of risking a sack or interception. Smart choice.

4th and 1. Carroll goes for it, and I respect the hell out of that decision. Expecting a short play, the Rams revert to their single high safety scheme to better defend the run, and Schotty responds by switching right back to the passing game, down-and-distance be damned.

A go route by Swoopes draws off free safety Eric Weddle and leaves Malik Turner one on one with Jalen Ramsey, who’s a step behind him. Wilson throws a perfect pass, and Turner...drops it. This sort of play - more precisely, this sort of outcome - will haunt me for as long as the Seahawks have Gordon (literally and figuratively) on the bench.

Drive 4 (Q2 5:55, Seahawks 3 Rams 14)

1st and 10. What might have been shall never be, as Wilson and Prosise botch a read-option handoff. I’m loathe to assign blame, and I do note (as the announcers did) that a read-option handoff, predicated on the quarterback not making the decision to hold on or let go until the very last moment, is a very tricky operation that Seattle’s third string running back has probably not practiced very much with the starting quarterback. But. It sure looks to me like Wilson gives the ball a tug at the very last moment. Make of it what you will, Seahawks faithful.

2nd and 17. This is a most interesting play. For a reason that I can’t fully understand, two of the defensive linemen who by all rights should have been howling after Wilson with their hair on fire...didn’t. They stood still and waited for Wilson to throw.

The result was a screen pass to Metcalf that turned out to have a lot more risk of a chasedown tackle from the backside than could ever have been expected when the play was drawn up. When that backside pressure arrives, Metcalf makes a heroic effort to pick up extra yards by reversing field, breaking three tackles along the way. What an extremely exciting player we drafted in DK.

3rd and 7. The protection holds up. Everybody is open. The pass is perfect. The normally reliable Hollister just flubs the catch. Josh Gordon’s reaction says it all. This was the play where it began to feel like One of Those Games. The kind where a different player each takes his turn slipping on a banana peel.

Drive 5 (Q2 0:55, Seahawks 3, Rams 21)

1st and 10. It must be acknowledged that there’s only so much a team can be expected to reliably produce with 55 seconds on the clock and 75 yards to travel. The Rams for their part are happy to keep it all in front of them with 4-yard passes like these to Hollister.

2nd and 6. Just a bizarre play by Schotty - one of the rare ones that make me question what the hell was supposed to happen. Five receiving options all converge on a single point downfield, meaning that after Carson catches the ball, he was guaranteed to be surrounded by ugly blue throwback jerseys. It goes for five yards, but tough to see the upside.

3rd and 1. Fortunately, Seattle is bailed out by an incredible run from Carson. As with pretty much all great runs, rewinding the tape reveals a bunch of great blocks. Some credit goes to Iupati and Fluker, but special praise is due to Joey Hunt, who blocks linebacker Cory Littleton right out of his cleats. If Hunt is supplanted by Pocic at center, I’d really like to see him used as a sixth lineman the way Fant currently is: his ability to lay blocks in space is second to none.

1st and 10. DK Metcalf puts such a gruesome cut on Jalen Ramsey that I half suspect Ramsey thought the Monday morning tape would be more easily explicable to his position coach if he didn’t even try to catch up with Metcalf and just pretended to be in the wrong coverage. Metcalf is wide open for a first down when Wilson throws this football, but surprise! It’s Wilson’s evil twin, and he’s been staring down a very-much-covered Lockett running a go route. One athletic play by cornerback Troy Hill later, and it’s 2nd and 10.

2nd and 10. Let’s get the suspense out of the way, first: Wilson is sacked. He finishes a five-step drop and is immediately flushed from the pocket like a partridge and bagged by Dante Fowler, Jr.

Now that that’s established, there’s a lot of blame to go around. Hollister’s chip block on Clay Matthews was underwhelming. Ifedi’s choice to try and chase Aaron Donald halfway around the formation instead of, you know, handing him off to another blocker like a sane human being and staying home to block Matthews is inexplicable. It leads to no less than four Seattle players blocking Donald and nobody blocking Matthews. It’s stupidity like this, especially coming from a fifth year player, that just sends me around the bend.

Meanwhile, Wilson’s scramble instincts on this one are worthy of Bambi’s mother. A decisive QB run might have set up a long field goal. Throwing the ball away would have stopped the clock and given the Seahawks two more downs and 20 seconds to work with. A decisive pass to Metcalf, albeit contested, would have been low-risk because an incompletion also would have stopped the clock, and an interception would merely end the half. A short, panicked scramble ending in an ignominious tackle for a loss was the worst-case outcome, and that’s what we got, along with a 3-point first half performance.

Join me later this week for Russell Wilson’s Evil Twin, Part II!