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Neanderball: Russell Wilson’s Evil Twin, Part II

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Seattle Seahawks v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

Good morning all, and welcome back for Part II of this week’s Neanderball column, featuring the second half of the Seattle Seahawks’ dispiriting loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

This week’s thesis is that Russell Wilson is not currently playing great football, and that while Russ is so good that the Hawks can still win games when he’s stuck in second gear, the rest of the team needs to be there to pick up the slack. That didn’t happen either (he said, throwing burnt entrees Gordon Ramsay-style at the players responsible for pass blocking and pass catching).

Drive 6 (Q3 9:48, Seahawks 9 Rams 21)

1st and 10. The second of back to back interceptions by Quandre Diggs keeps the Rams from scoring but - not to sound ungrateful - gives Seattle the ball back in miserable field position. The first play the Seahawks call is a run that I’m convinced was calculated more to prevent a safety than pick up serious yards.

Duane Brown chips defensive lineman Michael Brockers to assist Mike Iupati before advancing to block a linebacker, but Iupati isn’t able to control Brockers, who wrestles his way back into the running lane to take down Carson after 3 yards. Even if Iupati had wrangled Brockers, cornerback Troy Hill was patiently waiting at the top of the hole to bring Carson down for 5 or 6 yards tops. Breathing room established, and I suppose they can’t all be glorious.

2nd and 7. Such a critical down and distance. Miss this throw and it’s third and long, with berserker pass rushers trying to use Wilson’s skull as a beer stein and defensive backs laying in the weeds around the first down marker like crocodiles at a chokepoint in a wildebeest migration. But, hit something to make it a first down or third and short and the offense starts rolling.

And it was there to be hit: DK Metcalf once again runs a knife-in-the-ribs crossing route in the zone coverage between the two deep safeties and the linebackers. He is wide fu really, really open. Russ has time but never even seems to look Metcalf’s way, instead fixating on a checkdown option to Jacob Hollister that picks up a single, useless yard.

3rd and 6. Someone once told me that at the beginning of your life all you have is potential, at the end of your life all you have is consequences, and the middle is just converting one into the other. In the mayfly lifespan of a football drive, what’s left on third and long is mostly consequences.

The Seahawks keep in seven blockers to max protect until one of the receivers streaking downfield can get open, but a rusher gets through. Someone always gets through. Not that it particularly matters: the Rams have a defender tight on the hip of all three downfield receivers, and the safety is already sprinting towards Wilson’s chosen target, David Moore, before the ball is released. That it was an inaccurate pass is just the cherry on top of a series of unfortunate events.

Seattle needed this drive. Not in a technical “it would be impossible to win without it” sense, but in the “there goes all of their cushion” sense. Down two touchdowns halfway through the 3rd quarter and with Los Angeles proving capable of burning clock like a refinery flares gas, the number of opportunities to get those two touchdowns without the finger of God (or the fingers of Diggs) interceding has now dwindled badly - without even accounting for the Fighting McVays, you know, scoring more points.

Drive 7 (Q3 5:49, Seahawks 9 Rams 21)

The defense and special teams bail the offense out yet again by holding the Rams to a field goal and then blocking it. The game is somehow miraculously still competitive, and visions of a decisive Seattle drive to make the score 21-16 and put the Hawks in position to close it out danced through my head. Nope.

1st and 10. The Seahawks open with an extremely well-blocked run that picks up 7 yards.

Especially compared to the dog’s breakfast Seattle’s offensive linemen made of their run assignments early this season, seeing Hunt, Fluker, Ifedi, and Fant all hit their blocks cleanly and in quick succession is eerie, like watching your fat cousin who’s never so much as skipped rope drop the school bully with a crisp four-punch combo. I mean, I’m happy for them, but where the hell did that come from?

2nd and 3. Iupati does an excellent job sealing the left edge, and Duane Brown makes a critical block in space to hand Carson the necessary three yards for a first down. This was not a running play schemed to go any further than that, though, and linebacker Cory Littleton steps up unblocked to bring down Carson.

1st and 10. The Rams shift back to a single-high safety, and I keep mentioning it because once you begin to see the correlation between Wilson’s attempted deep shots and the alignment shown by the defensive backs, it’s impossible to ignore. Sure enough, Wilson and Schotty look for a deep shot.

David Moore is very open on yet another mid-crosser between the safeties and the linebackers, which has been a vulnerability in the Rams’ coverage scheme all night - watch cornerback Troy Hill frantically gesture toward Moore as he recognizes the problem.

Wilson didn’t take advantage, but he wasn’t lacking for options, either. Hollister runs past Clay Matthews, who thinks he’s passing off responsibility for the Hawks tight end to one of the safeties and breaks on Tyler Lockett’s sideline route. Hollister settles into the gap in the zone coverage and Russ wastes no time unloading to him. Not a terribly accurate pass, but Hollister’s hands are good enough to secure the ball for 19 yards.

1st and 10. Joe Theismann started 163 straight games for the Washington Redskins, and once said that “when a quarterback looks at the rush, his career is over.” Meaning that it’s a matter of supreme mental discipline to disregard the grown men attempting to make you see four fingers when the coach holds up two, and focus instead on finding the receiver who’s about to come open downfield. I’m not suggesting that Wilson’s career is anywhere close to over, but this Rams game exemplifies what happens when a quarterback allows the very rational, immediate concern about not getting pasted by a behemoth to interfere with their job.

The Rams go back to a two-high, and the Seahawks go back to the intermediate pass. Moore runs a clear-out route that draws the attention of no less than three defensive backs, and Lockett sticks his foot in the dirt 10 yards downfield and cuts toward the sideline. Jalen Ramsey probably should have been covering the sideline, but he’s been lured out of position by Moore, and the cornerback trailing Lockett has absolutely no chance of interfering with this pass - if Wilson had thrown it as Lockett came out of his break at about 2.5 seconds.

Instead, Wilson allowed his attention to shift to Aaron Donald, who Iupati initially helped Hunt double before making the mystifying decision that his help was no longer required. Donald shifted Wilson off his spot at 3.1 seconds, long after the pass should have been gone - but of course, once you’re looking at the monster in your face instead of the receiver down the field, it’s already over.

2nd and 10. Some of you are no doubt thinking, “But Clarke, aren’t you overlooking the fact that Wilson’s protection breaks down on pretty much every passing play? How could anyone be expected to produce in such a toxic work environment?” This next play is an excellent Rorschach test for us all on this subject.

On the one hand, absolutely, Donald beats Iupati with a speed move that forces Wilson to move at exactly 2 seconds, and it’s inside pressure, which is always more disruptive. On the other hand, all the other blocking assignments go quite well, and with the way defenders are shunted, Wilson actually has 6-7 yards of space to climb the pocket away from Donald before he hits the line of scrimmage and is no longer allowed to make a forward pass. So let’s look at the landscape at the top of Wilson’s climb, with 2-3 yards of space to throw before he hits the line of scrimmage and without any defenders in his face:

That’s Tyler Lockett, Josh Gordon, and Jacob Hollister all open for a first down pass, if Wilson had been looking downfield - but it sure seems to me that the moment Donald flushes him out, Wilson makes the decision to keep the ball and drops his eyes.

To employ some Tolkien-esque foreshadowing, the pass blocking will indeed break down on the next play, a third and long, and that won’t be Wilson’s fault...but the bad decisions on first and second down that created such a dangerous down and distance sure were.

3rd and 7. There’s nothing particularly complicated about this one. Carson failed to successfully block linebacker Cory Littleton, and Iupati and Brown brutally mishandle an outside stunt by Aaron Donald. Littleton and Donald meet at Russell Wilson like the Soviets and the Americans linking up at the Elbe, and this extremely vital drive is finished at midfield.

Drive 8 (Q3 1:00, Seahawks 9 Rams 21)

Against all reasonable expectations, Seattle’s defense held yet again, forcing a quick three and out and giving the Seahawks the ball back with 12 points to get and 16 minutes to get ‘em. There was no need for desperation at this juncture, but there was also no room for mistakes.

1st and 10. This run play required Jacob Hollister, recently of the Seattle practice squad, to block six-time Pro Bowler, one-time All-Pro outside linebacker Clay Matthews. Sounds like a pretty stupid idea when I put it like that, doesn’t it? That sort of play-calling is worth just about exactly the 2 yards it gained.

Then Metcalf shoves Jalen Ramsey after the whistle. Remember what I just said about “no room for mistakes?” I’m sure Ramsey told Metcalf his father was a chucklehead and his mother had toe fungus, because Ramsey’s mouth deserves its own Olympic event. Whatever Ramsey said, though, Metcalf is a professional who should be sufficiently self-aware and self-controlled to smile, get back in the huddle, and jump Ramsey in the tunnel after the game.

2nd and 23. Seattle sends four receivers downfield and Carson into a short crossing pattern. For reasons known only to God and Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the cornerback on top of Lockett rotates off of him to cover the sideline route, while the nearest linebacker shifts on to him. I’m sure it looked real slick on paper, but in practice it left Lockett open for an easy 15-yard completion.

3rd and 8. Schotty does a neat thing on this extremely important third down play. Instead of flooding the field with receivers, Schotty mostly lines the skill players up tight to the formation, leaving Josh Gordon and Malik Turner (ugh, why?) isolated on the sidelines with a single defender on each. Since the formation is weighted to the right, the Rams’ single high safety cheats right, leaving Gordon in a true one on one with Troy Hill. What more could you ask for, right? Schotty had to be counting his winnings even before the cards were laid down.

And then Gordon slips. The ball sails through the space he would have occupied if upright, and the dealer is raking all of Schotty’s chips toward Wade Phillips. This was the moment where I lost all faith that the Seahawks were going to pull a magical comeback out of their collective rears. The image of hitherto-reliable Josh Gordon stepping on a rake completed the impression of a team that was, for whatever reason, fatally cursed with execution issues on this particular Sunday.

The Seahawks had two more drives this game, starting at 11:07 and 4:32 of the fourth quarter, but by the time the Hawks got the ball back, the Rams had finally punched in another touchdown to make it a 19-point, three-score game. Hopes for a Seattle victory rested on the same sort of math the woeful Oakland Raiders are currently relying on to make the playoffs.

Instead of charting the final two drives, I’ll just post these two plays that I think are worth your time.

3rd and 15 (Q4 7:11). You all remember this one: the announcers burned Malik Turner at the stake for “not getting his head around”, costing the Seahawks a touchdown. Yet another Seattle receiver shovelling dirt on Wilson’s MVP aspirations and the team’s odds of pulling off a win. Shame. I had no reason to disagree until I checked the coaching tape that provides a straight-angle view of Wilson’s pass...and that doesn’t look to me like it’s Turner’s fault.

He does get his head around as he comes out of his break - but Wilson both air mails it and puts the wrong english on the ball, causing it to drift left in flight instead of right, on a throw to a receiver running a right-breaking route. If you disagree, let me know about it in the comments section, but I’m putting this one on Russ.

2nd and 7 (8:22). Team cultures differ, and while new players talk about an adjustment period, it’s interesting to see it play out as visually as this: the passing play breaks down and Wilson scrambles. Watch Josh Gordon complete his route and then, seeing a cloud of dust rise where his quarterback’s pocket used to be, put his hands on his hips and wait for the whistle to blow. Meanwhile, all the longer-tenured Seahawks receivers immediately start running improvised routes, trusting that Russ will find a way to escape and send the ball downfield. You can see Gordon have a first-day-of-school “oh sugar” moment before he does as the Romans do and runs around until the whistle. Welcome to Seattle, Josh!