Before the Seattle Seahawks’ thrilling Monday Night Football win over the Denver Broncos, I pondered out loud how the defense would set itself up against opposing quarterbacks including and beyond Russell Wilson. You may recall that last year the Seahawks were not getting beaten deep, but they were getting torn up on the short stuff.
Big big deal for the new Seahawks defense is what they're willing to give up. Not just tonight vs. Wilson but over the course of a full season.— Field Gulls (@FieldGulls) September 12, 2022
From @fboutsiders almanac on the 2021 team: pic.twitter.com/SnV1OLJ2jL
A whole lot of bending, not a lot of breaking.
Well that schematic trend continued against Russell Wilson, whose debut stat line for his Denver Broncos debut looks pretty good: 29/42 for 340 yards and a 67-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Jeudy. It’s only the 22nd 300+ yd passing game of his regular season career and 12th highest overall. His EPA/play was about 0.43, good for 3rd best in the league.
But when you dig a little deeper, the way he got his 340 yards was really not a typical Wilson performance.
Seahawks fans have long known that Wilson has a penchant for regularly seeking and hitting big plays deep down the field. There are few in league history who can match his week-to-week long ball accuracy. And yet, outside of the Jeudy touchdown, Wilson’s passing success was almost entirely in the short passing game. Does this look like a normal Russell Wilson passing chart to you?
Okay, maybe not challenging the middle of the field is the only normal part, but you’ll see heavy clusters of short passes that turned into big gains. According to Pro Football Reference, the Seahawks gave up 230 yards after the catch, which is the most YAC that Wilson has had since PFR began tracking the data in 2018.
Wilson’s target distribution was unlike anything we’d ever seen when he played for Seattle. All the questioning about him not targeting running backs and tight ends enough? Well...
Just a quick use of @stathead and last night was the first time that Russell Wilson has ever targeted a running back 10+ times in a game.— Field Gulls (@FieldGulls) September 13, 2022
Javonte Williams had 11 catches on 12 targets.
Previous high was 8 targets (x3) to Mike Davis twice in 2018, Travis Homer once in 2019.
Wilson’s target distribution by position
Wide Receivers: 8/15 for 178 yards and a touchdown
Tight Ends: 7/11 for 85 yards
Running Backs: 14/15 for 81 yards
(Obviously the unaccounted for target was a throwaway.)
This is a whopping one-game sample size but it is more than noteworthy that someone as historically aggressive as Wilson was limited to just 6.5 intended air yards per attempt, and only 3.7 air yards per completion. Through the opening week, Wilson is tied with Kyler Murray for second-lowest average air yards per completion. You might also notice that the bottom six QBs all lost their games, and then there’s Geno Smith at 25th.
Only five of Wilson’s completions were more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage; we even saw him execute a couple of successful screens. Perhaps that was always Denver’s gameplan knowing Seattle’s 2021 tendencies, but I reckon it was more on the Seahawks dictating the terms of how the Broncos passing attack could operate.
Wilson was also prolific on 3rd down, going 12/14 for 199 yards and a TD with no sacks taken. That means his early down passing was just 17/28 for 141 yards, which when you take away the 10 yards lost on sacks meant his net yards per attempt on early downs was just 4.36. It was a complete 180 for someone who’s been consistently terrific on 1st and 2nd downs but has repeatedly struggled on 3rd down.
Oh, and if you think the Seahawks are some stone-age team that doesn’t use analytical data in a meaningful way, Pete Carroll and Clint Hurtt can set you straight on a very specific strategy that resulted in many of Wilson’s less effective plays.
Pete Carroll on @SeattleSports says Seahawks “were really focused” on their pass rush getting Russell Wilson to move, specifically to his left.— Gregg Bell (@gbellseattle) September 13, 2022
They got him to move 10 times.
Says Wilson’s numbers while moving to his left are way lower.
Russ outside the tackle box to this left (since 2021), per NGS— Keegan Abdoo (@KeeganAbdoo) September 13, 2022
12/29, 177 yards, 2 INT
-31.7 passing EPA https://t.co/ReooWB6bBW
Adding onto Pete Carroll's comments on his radio show about the defense trying to make Russell Wilson to move left, #Seahawks defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt noted that the analytics team play a big role in those types of gameplans: pic.twitter.com/60DXzuneAT— John Boyle (@johnpboyle) September 14, 2022
I was initially critical of the way the defense played even with the 16 points allowed, given the element of good fortune to recover two fumbles at the 1-yard line, have a touchdown nullified due to a false start, and a would-be touchdown called incomplete because the receiver’s toe was barely on the line. With some time to reflect, the way the Seahawks gameplanned against Wilson might have always been the best course of action. It wasn’t perfect execution — better 3rd down defense and improved tackling is a must moving forward — but the Seahawks players and coaching staff largely did a good job of taking away a lot of what Wilson likes to do.