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Why Russell Wilson looked much better protected in 2018

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NFL: Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Over the course of the 2018 season, fans and observers often raved about how much better the offensive line of the Seattle Seahawks was in pass protection compared to prior seasons, but as noted on Friday, many metrics showed only marginal improvement from 2017 to 2018. How can that be the case, though? How is it that what fans and observers are certain they saw is not coming through in the metrics?

There was near universal acclaim that Russell Wilson was afforded far better pass protection in this most recent season compared to the majority of the first six years of his career, so how could the metrics looked at on Friday show only a small improvement in pass protection, when fans clearly believe they saw major improvement?

To dig a little bit deeper into things, we’ll start by taking a look at some more data from the passing game and compare it to seasons past to show just how minimal the improvement actually was.

Hits and Sacks taken by Russell Wilson in his career

Season Dropbacks Hits Hit Rate Sacks Sack Rate
Season Dropbacks Hits Hit Rate Sacks Sack Rate
2012 476 64 13.45% 33 6.93%
2013 502 94 18.73% 44 8.76%
2014 546 91 16.67% 42 7.69%
2015 586 114 19.45% 45 7.68%
2016 628 111 17.68% 41 6.53%
2017 655 121 18.47% 43 6.56%
2018 509 94 18.47% 51 10.02%

One thing readers may notice in this table is that the sack rate does not match up to the numbers listed for Wilson’s statistics in his performance profiles from any of the major data sites, such as ESPN.com, NFL.com or Pro-Football-Reference.com. The reason for that is simple, as I prefer to use what I consider to be a more accurate method for computing these numbers. Specifically, instead of simply using pass attempts as the denominator when calculating sack rate, I prefer to use total dropbacks, which is the sum of the number of pass attempts, sacks and scrambles. That simply seems more accurate than ignoring the fact that 31 times in 2018 Wilson dropped back to pass, but rather than take a sack or attempt a pass ended up scrambling.

In any case, summarizing that table is pretty simple, as in spite of the fact that it appeared as though Wilson had far better protection in 2018 compared to prior seasons, he was getting hit at rates that were nearly identical to the rate at which he took hits in previous seasons. Specifically, in 2017 he was hit on less than six thousandths of a percent more drops than he was in 2018, a difference so small that Wilson could drop back to pass 600 times a season and it wouldn’t be until the eighth game of the 27th season that we would expect there to be a difference of a single hit between those two rates.

How can that be, though? How can it be the case when fans are certain that they saw Wilson being provided better protectio? Fans don’t just believe, they know and are adamant that the line was far superior in 2018 compared to 2017 and prior years, but that improvement isn’t borne out in the numbers. Why?

The answer to that question is made up of multiple parts. The first is that as football fans we’ve been watching football for years or decades, and that our minds have become accustomed to seeing certain things a certain way. In the mind a quarterback is supposed to drop back to pass and then be afforded a pocket from which to throw. We see it all the time watching games, and highlights and from those years of experiences our minds expect things to look a certain way. With Russell Wilson, they’ve never looked that way, though.

Wilson is as gifted an athlete as one will find at the quarterback position. Add in his attitude and his team first mentality, and he’s an extremely valuable asset to the Seahawks organization. However, that doesn’t mean he is without fault, and there are most certainly parts of his game which need improvement and refinement. That said, one piece of his game that showed drastic improvement in 2018 over prior seasons was his pocket mechanics, and a subject on which I have written about multiple times - drop depth.

I touched on the subject after the loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, as we saw Russell’s habit of taking deep drops pop up in that game. Obviously that habit alone was not the cause of the playoff loss, however, it gets to the heart of what made the offensive line look so much better in 2018 in spite of the fact that the rate stats seem to show it was performing at levels identical to prior seasons. Specifically, over the course of his career Wilson has not had the best mechanics for a quarterback, and has had a habit of taking drops that go back ten yards or more.

This is likely a major part of why Brian Schottenheimer was brought in to be offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and “challenging him like maybe he has never been challenged before.” The change and improvement in Wilson’s pocket mechanics in 2018 compared to prior seasons was nothing short of transformative, and this was also seen in the frequency, or rather infrequency, with which Wilson took deeper drops over the course of the 2018 season.

Getting to the heart of the matter, the reason deep drops are so dangerous is because of how much they expose the quarterback to pressure, as deep drops facilitate the breakdown of the system designed to provide the quarterback protection. In that article on drop depth I included a tweet on this subject, but did not include any explanation of exactly who the author of the tweet was. As a reminder, here is that tweet.

Now, for those who are unfamiliar with the name Paul Alexander, he was formerly the offensive line coach for the Cincinnati Bengals for more than twenty years, prior to becoming the line coach for the Cowboys for a very brief stint. In any case, he knows what he is talking about and he is the coach who developed Andrew Whitworth from the time he was drafted all the way through when he departed Cincinnati as a free agent.

Now, furthering the point about the danger of deep drops, here is a second tweet on the subject from 2018 first team All Pro right tackle Mitchell Schwartz of the Kansas City Chiefs (Author’s note: Schwartz was also second team All Pro tackle in both 2016 and 2017).

Exactly like Schwartz says, a quarterback setting up deeper “exposes the Ts and allows the DEs to get there.” This is exactly what I touched on in the piece about the dropback by Wilson in the Dallas game, and let’s go back and take a look at that particular play one more time.

As a reminder, this play is a 3rd & 13 from their own 20 yard line on the second Seahawks drive of the game, and here’s what things looked like prior to the snap.

I’m not going to get into the pass routes this time around because they’re irrelevant for my point today, as we’re focusing solely on the pass protection. Now that we’ve seen what things looked like prior to the snap, here’s what things looked like as the play developed and Wilson took his ten yard drop.

There we see Wilson’s rear foot is planted at the ten yard line, exactly ten yards from the line of scrimmage at the twenty. In addition, what we see is both tackles, Duane Brown on the left side and Germain Ifedi on the right side, have set up and squared to the rushing defenders at a depth of about six yards. This is exactly where they should be set up, but by dropping so deep Wilson has made their jobs far more difficult. I’ve looked at this issue specifically in other situations, so let’s take a quick side track to see how much easier it is for a tackle to provide pass protection to a quarterback on an eight or nine yard drop versus a ten yard drop.

The first play is the touchdown pass Wilson completed to Nick Vannett on 4th & Goal from the six yard line ahainst the Los Angeles Chargers. The fourth down marker is visible at the six yard line at the top of the screen, and Russ has his back foot just inside the fourteen yard line. Thus, this is an eight yard drop, and we can see Ifedi has his man locked up and engaged at the thirteen. If Wilson had taken a ten yard drop (or deeper), he would be at the sixteen, and it would be rather easy for the pass rusher to disengage from Ifedi and put pressure on Wilson.

Next we’ll take a look at the fourth down touchdown pass to David Moore in the game against the Carolina Panthers. On this play the line of scrimmage is the 35 yard line, and we see Wilson with his back foot at the 44, a nine yard drop. Just above Wilson in the image Brown has locked on Mario Addison, and is riding him upfield and away from Russ.

To get a better understanding of how a single yard can make a huge difference on a play like this, here is a shot from the end zone view at the moment Wilson is delivering the pass.

We all know that play went for a 35 yard touchdown pass, but what would have happened if Wilson had been a yard or two deeper on that play? Obviously, that’s nothing more than a hypothetical, but how would things develop if Wilson were further back? There it’s already visible that Brown is getting turned upfield by Addison as the pass is being delivered, so if Wilson were standing right on the forty it would likely not be difficult for Addison to either maneuver around or slide off Brown and apply pressure to Wilson.

In any case, getting back to the original discussion regarding how important drop depth is and the play against Dallas, let’s take a look at the pressure on that play.

That image shows Randy Gregory turning the corner on Brown and getting past him. This is not a knock on Brown in any way, as Randy Gregory is a very quick and very athletic individual. At the combine he ran a 4.64 forty, but more importantly he posted a 1.61 ten yard split. Now, Brown is very athletic in his own right, having posted a 5.03 forty time with a 1.71 ten yard split at his Pro Day, however, that was nearly eleven years ago and players don’t get faster as they play through their twenties and into their mid-thirties.

Add in the fact that Gregory gets to run forward while Brown has to move backwards, and that’s a footrace that the defensive end will win pretty much every time. I don’t care how athletic a tackle is, they will not consistently win a footrace against a defensive end while moving backwards. That means that in order for a tackle to be able to do their job within the system designed to provide pass protection to the quarterback, it is vital for the quarterback to avoid deep drops because deep drops cause the system to break down.

Not only do deep drops expose the tackles to added risk of being beaten to the outside, such drops force the tackles deeper upfield and this creates an entirely new problem, and that’s the ability for the defense to create pressure up the middle.

It’s no secret that tackles who lack the arm length, foot speed or quickness to play in space required at the tackle position are sometimes moved inside to play on the interior of the offensive line. This has been seen with several names that Seahawks fans are likely to recognize, including Justin Britt, D.J. Fluker, T.J. Lang and Kelechi Osemele. There’s nothing wrong with the skills these players possess, it’s simply that their skill set is better suited to playing on the interior of the offensive line, and often times the reason why is because on the interior of the line there is less ground to cover. Or, as announcers or analysts will often say, playing on the interior of the line is like playing in a phone booth.

The reason these players are playing in a phone booth is because with another offensive lineman on either side, the space within which an interior lineman operates is typically more constrained. That’s is different from a tackle, who is forced to defend the outside as far upfield as a rushing defender may take them. Thus, by confining guard space within the constraints of the perimeter of the phone booth, the job of a guard is not necessarily easier, but certainly different, than that of a tackle.

However, if a quarterback takes a deep drop and a tackle is forced further upfield than would be preferred, that opens things up significantly on the interior, as the hypothetical phone booth is expanded. As the space for which the guard is responsible increases, then so too increases the difficulty of the job the guard must perform. It’s a lot easier to keep control of a defensive tackle or rushing linebacker if they bump into a tackle or center when trying to work their way around the guard.

Getting back to the play against Dallas, let’s take another look at the picture of Wilson at the bottom of his drop.

In that image, the defender J.R. Sweezy is working to block is a perfect example of this phone booth concept. Sweezy has good position between the defender and Wilson, and as the defender is working to get to Wilson, he’s about to run right into Brown. However, in the next image we looked at where Gregory has worked upfield and past Brown, it’s important to notice the effect of Brown being turned away from Wilson and upfield on Sweezy.

All of a sudden, instead of Sweezy operating between Justin Britt and Brown in a relatively confined space, he’s all alone in pass protection. He has effectively become another tackle with the amount of space he must defend in order to prevent the defender with which he is engaged from getting to Wilson. Contrast that with the tight spacing we saw on the pocket on the touchdown throw to Moore against the Panthers, and the difference is quite striking.

All it takes is a glance at each of the two images to see the difference in spacing on the interior of the line that results from the tackles not being so far upfield. Fluker and Ifedi on the right side there could be holding hands, and quite simply put there is no space for the defender Fluker is blocking to run around Fluker. And while he may not be the best pass protecting guard in the league, I’m not worried about most defensive tackles powering their way through the mountain of a man that Fluker.

That brings things full circle to where we started - the system that is pass protection. It’s a system that requires multiple parts to all work correctly in order for the system to maintain its integrity and operate as it is designed. That’s why the consistency of drop depth is extremely important, and why deep drops which cause the system to break down result in an inordinately high amount of pressure.

Which is why the following graphic is so telling.

For those who are less visual and prefer the actual pressure rate by drop depth in numeric form, here it is.

Pressure rate by drop depth

Drop Depth Pressure Rate
Drop Depth Pressure Rate
3 0.00%
4 0.00%
5 28.60%
6 12.00%
7 20.00%
8 33.70%
9 51.90%
10+ 61.70%

Obviously, there are certain plays for which there will be a lower amount of pressure, such as bubble screens and jet shovel passes, so there will invariably be higher pressure on longer developing plays. However, the purpose here was to demonstrate how capping a drop at eight or nine yards preserves the integrity of the pass protection system compared to a quarterback dropping ten yards or deeper.

And that brings us back to the original question of why the protection looked so much better for Russell in 2018 if the numbers show he was only slightly less pressured while being hit at rates almost identical to prior seasons. As noted above, as fans who have been watching the game for years or decades, our minds our used to seeing things a certain way when watching games, and in prior seasons when Wilson took deep drops and bailed out of the pocket to back, it was different than what we’ve become accustomed to seeing.

In 2018, however, a lot of the pressure applied on Wilson looked different. No longer was he dodging pressure that was coming at him from around the outside by spinning deeper and to the outside. Instead, he was simply taking a step forward and avoiding this pressure without it even registering as true pressure in the minds of fans watching. Wilson no longer looked like he was running for his life because for the first time in his career he was playing more within the confines of the traditional system of pass protection that requires adherence to system rules by all participants in order for the system to work. That helped contribute to the line looking like it had improved drastically in 2018, even when the numbers show he was getting hit just as often and pressured almost nearly as often.

In addition, I’d guess that the fact that Wilson began to play within the constraints of the traditional pass protection system also played a not insignificant role in analysts who had dismissed him and his production in the past being open to rethinking their position and changing their minds on Wilson and his abilities. We all saw when Pete Prisco made a public proclamation that he had been wrong about Wilson’s game, and I don’t find it any stretch of the imagination to believe that is directly connected to the fact that how Wilson played quarterback fundamentally changed in 2018.

Now, this is not to say that Wilson has reached the pinnacle of his profession or his abilities in any way. I expect him to continue to develop and improve in the coming seasons, amd to contimue to develop in a way that makes his performance on the field appear much more in line with that of a traditional quarterback. Specifically, as he gets more comfortable playing within the pocket, and as his mechanics become more natural as opposed to requiring his focused attention, I expect his play to blossom even further in the coming years.

Thus, while I will continue to complain about the archaic offensive system and scheme in which the Seahawks force Wilson to operate, the hiring of Brian Schottenheimer to beat Russell Wilson into being a traditional pocket passer is already paying dividends, and 2018 was likely just beginning to scratch the surface. It’s scary to imagine how dangerous Wilson can be once he masters the skills he demonstrated in 2018, and they move from being forced to being a natural part of his game.