The Seahawks have probably never had a better performance on third down than they did last week against the Panthers. Quarterback Russell Wilson finished the day 8-for-8 on third downs for 199 yards, seven first downs, and three touchdowns.
Because we're a site that has put a focus on that specific down and has closely monitored Russell Wilson on third downs this year (Davis Hsu is the man), this was probably an extra satisfying mic-drop type of performance. Many of the throws were very quick to leave Wilson's hand, a focal point that I broke down last week, so it was fun to see those two points of emphasis show up huge for the Seahawks on the field on Saturday night.
So, without further ado, let's take a look at the Xs and Os of how Wilson's third down throws changed the course of the game and sent the Seahawks to the NFC Championship Game. Davis emailed me his thoughts on several of these plays so I'll include those notes below as well.
3-12-SEA 36 (6:16 1st Quarter) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass deep right to J.Kearse to CAR 31 for 33 yards (C.Jones).
There had not been an explosive play from either team early in the game, but Seattle would flip field position on 3rd and 12 midway through the 1st Quarter with this big play. As a harbinger of an incredible day by Kearse, he opens the game up with a well-timed leaping catch of an overthrown pass from Wilson.
The Seahawks improved greatly on converting 3rd and 7-10 yards in the second half of the season, but conversions on downs of 11+ yards were VERY few and far between until the last few weeks.
The Panthers rush only four, and the Offensive Line gives Wilson a lot of time. The Panthers have seven defenders on five receivers.
On the game broadcast it was kind of difficult to really tell what was happening here and obviously it was impossible to see what the Seahawks' receivers were doing downfield. Russell Wilson, after stepping up into the pocket cautiously and seeing nothing open up to the left side of the field, strafes to the right and gets a nice last-effort block up front by Justin Britt. Britt knocks the defender back and off balance, which means Wilson can throw this second-baseman's lob in rhythm.
Below, you can see in the All-22 footage. Davis:
Paul Richardson is bracketed up top (on the left) by the corner and safety. Doug Baldwin (far right) is covered up by two defenders for a time. Luke Kuechley shows why he is deserving of the props he gets - he is spinning & reversing all over the field in single coverage on the tight end (watch him, he is incredible).
Tre Boston just knocks Ricardo Lockette into the ground - no flag - so he's out of the picture.
There is really only one player open at this point - Kearse - and he is actually open for quite a while after he starts out on the left and runs a crossing route all the way across the field.
Russell loses a bit of window as he scrambles to the right to open up his field of vision again, but I think he knows Kearse is uncovering, and wants one more glance to make sure. He leaves it too high, but Kearse makes it happen.
Seattle would come up empty on the drive thanks to a dumb Ricardo Lockette taunting penalty that took them from the 27 yard line and in field goal range to the 42 yard line and out of it.
3-9-CAR 16 (1:01 1st Quarter) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass deep middle to D.Baldwin for 16 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Seattle's next drive, Seattle is blessed with excellent field position after Tony McDaniel recovers a Cam Newton fumble at the Carolina 28 yard line. After hitting Doug Baldwin for 11 yards, Lynch runs for one and Cooper Helfet drops a pass out in the flats to set up 3rd and 9 from the 16.
I'll include the pre-snap phase because it's important.
Wilson and Baldwin see something that they like -- likely in this case, a look that the Seahawks have studied that would indicate the safety over Baldwin would be coming in on a blitz. Doug signals to Russ, Russ signals back. The play is changed -- this is what's known as a "sight adjustment".
Baldwin talked about it in his presser this week, when asked about the non-verbal communication between Wilson and his receivers.
"It's been huge," he said. "We started ‑‑ I would say my second year in the league when his rookie season, I think the Chicago game is when we started to have that communication. And it was intermittent. It was here and there. Never truly consistent until this year. And it's been extremely fun because when you have a guy like Russell you can look at him and give him a certain look and he knows exactly what you're talking about. And it's that chemistry that you're talking about is something special. So on that specific play, you can see the communication happening right away once we get at the line of scrimmage. I actually wasn't completely sure because of the look I was getting. It didn't seem like the coverage was going to be exactly what we thought it was.
"But he just said, Screw it, we're just going to call it anyways and see what happens. And I mean that communication happened at the line of scrimmage without words being exchanged. So for us to be able to have that communication, that ability, is going to be amazing for us down the line.
"He trusts the guys around him, trusts his offensive line that they're going to hold it up for him. The tight end, that they're going to make their adjustment. And obviously he trusted me to throw the ball up well before I got on my break and trust me to make the play."
And, here's how it looked in real time. The safety over Baldwin blitzes, leaving the safety over the top in a cover-0 look one-on-one. In the open field, that's an easy "sluggo-seam" route for Baldwin to option into.
A point-by-point breakdown of what happened, from Davis:
This play has been broken down by many outlets, so I don't have much to add, but here are few thoughts:
(1) A few years ago, fans used to complain when the Seahawks went into empty sets on third down. It seemed like Wilson was not able to handle the blitz, and needed the threat of the run to hold the defense back. Well, Russell Wilson is finishing up his 3rd year in the NFL, and there is not much hope of a "converting" run threat on 3rd and 9 in a condensed red zone. Seahawks go empty.
(2) Seattle gets into their normal 11 Personnel (3WR/1TE/1RB), and send Lynch to the far wide right.
(3) Wilson and Baldwin know it is "zero safety", likely seven men on the blitz, and Seattle has only six into protect. Tre Boston has to play man-to-man from a deep position because he is the only defender playing the middle of the field (it's a lot to ask, but he is protection by the confines of a condensed red zone, an all-out blitz, and the long down and distance (9 yards).
(4) It's not clear from the TV copy, but something about the safety on the LOS near Baldwin, something about his foot placement, assured Baldwin and Wilson that he was indeed blitzing, or, assured them enough to just make the sight adjustment and go with it. As Baldwin said after -- "I actually wasn't completely sure because of the look I was getting. It didn't seem like the coverage was going to be exactly what we thought it was. But [Russell] just said, 'screw it,' we're just going to call it anyways and see what happens."
(5) Okung also motions prior to the snap; he also knows the safety is coming on the backside and he knows he needs to pick him up. This is total team effort here, multiple players making an adjustment based on the defensive look alone.
(6) Luke Willson has really an impossible job -- try to block 2 defenders (Seahawks have 6 blockers on 7 blitzers) but he stays "inside first" which is what you are taught to do.
(7) Luke WIllson, after noticing one blister is on more of a "delay" tries to peel back to Davis. Luke does not really hinder Davis, but Russell Wilson has the ball out so fast it does not matter
(8) Baldwin does a great job of a jab step inside right at the 1st down marker, which the defender has to honor, and this creates the final separation that he needs.
This touchdown was a total team effort -- from Russell, to Okung, to Luke, the offensive line, Baldwin, and even Lynch forces Luke Kuechly to vacate the middle of the field.
Against the Panthers:
And, against the Eagles:
Look familiar? It's essentially the same thing. Wilson and Doug recognize a blitz is immenent, they adjust the play, and Doug beats his man in the open field one-on-one with a "sluggo seam" route. Sluggo stands for "slant and go" and the jab step sells the slant before the receiver runs the go.
A great play by both Wilson and Baldwin, and as Davis points out, really the whole offense.
3-7-SEA 37 (5:06 2nd Quarter) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass deep left to J.Kearse for 63 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Kearse's amazing 63-yard touchdown reception.
The Seahawks line up in one of their favorite looks: "trips right, strong left, read option."
The Panthers essentially "double spy" Wilson and send five rushers -- it may not be a one hundred percent total "double spy" -- I actually think 41 and Luke Kuechly do sort of an exchange on Lynch with the true spy on Wilson being Davis -- but regardless, the "double spy" concept seems excessive. But, when you have a quarterback who can run like Wilson, and a very convertible 7 yards -- it may actually be somewhat sound.
The Seahawks leave the tight end and running back in to protect, because they are gearing up for a shot play.
The Panthers' defensive scheme leaves seven men near the line of scrimmage. The problem with leaving seven men near the line of scrimmage in "trips right" is that the corner guarding the slot receiver (most inside receiver) has an almost impossible job. He has no safety help and no sideline help, and it is very easy for most receivers to gain leverage toward the corner (the pylon).
To Bene Benwikere's credit, he actually plays the route very well -- he presses, and then when he gets into trail position, he actually widens toward the pylon.
Now, Wilson can't throw something easy underneath and have Kearse box him out for an easy 1st down. The coverage forces Wilson to make the tougher throw - the "over the shoulder" - but he drops it right on the dinner plate, and Kearse makes the spectacular one-handed grab, run, and amazing finish.
3-3-SEA 27 (13:41 3rd Quarter) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass short middle to P.Richardson to SEA 48 for 21 yards (T.Boston).
I can't say enough about this throw by Wilson. So, I'll have Richard Sherman say something about it too.
"I think he's grown most in his timing," Sherman said this week at his press conference. "He hits that back foot and the ball's gone. I don't think he's waiting. I think he's trusting his arm, trusting his read, and he's really making some incredible passes.
"He made an incredible pass to Paul Richardson last week, through a very, very small window. And to the naked eye it just looked like a regular pass, a completion, I think 22‑yard gain. But to somebody who knows the game, they understood that Luke Kuechly was closing on the ball, corner was closing from the other side, and he drilled it in there."
The endzone view of the play confirms just how excellent of a throw it was.
Kuechly reads Wilson's eyes but is a tick too late to break up the pass. This is as tight of a window throw as you'll find in the NFL.
3-1-SEA 35 (5:00 3rd Quarter) R.Wilson pass short right to L.Willson to SEA 41 for 6 yards (J.Norman).
And, the next third down throw that Wilson makes is a good representation of what makes him such a good quarterback -- he has the ability to hit those high-velocity stick-throws into tight windows, but he can also put touch on the ball when needed. This combination of traits is uncommon.
To Luke Willson's credit, he goes up and gets a pass that comes in (necessarily) high, and the Seahawks move the chains. Seattle would eventually get a field goal on that possession.
3-6-SEA 46 (11:46 4th Quarter) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass short right to L.Willson to CAR 25 for 29 yards (R.Harper; L.Kuechly).
This throw to Willson is just another example of the value and benefit in Russell trusting his reads and getting the ball out when he hits his back foot. It's a timing concept -- Willson finds the soft spot in the coverage and sits down -- and Wilson guns it in to him.
The protection is strong, and Wilson gets to step into this throw. Luke makes a few defenders miss on his way to 29 yards.
On the next play, Wilson hits Ricardo Lockette with a backshoulder throw in the endzone but Lockette can't get both hands up in time after fending off the defender. Lynch gets stuffed on second down, which sets up a 3rd and 10 from the Carolina 25 yard line.
3-10-CAR 25 (10:33 4th Quarter) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass short right to L.Willson for 25 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Again, it's just a quick throw in the face of a blitz. Wilson knows where the blitz is coming from, and knows which of his receivers should be viable options. Luke does the rest by beating safety Roman Harper to the endzone.
In the all-22 angle, you can see that Seattle's offensive line has trouble picking this up but Russell's quick decision to throw the ball makes it moot.
My one question on this play would be if this was an option route/sight adjustment by Willson based on what the defense was doing or whether it was the called play from the huddle. It's tough to know, but the way that Luke runs it makes me think it was an adjustment based on the Panthers' blitz -- a hot route -- designed to give Russell a quick dumpoff option in the face of pressure (and Willson runs right to where the pressure is coming from (i.e., the safety to that side blitzes rather than drops, leaving an open zone briefly)). If this is the case, and I think it may be, it's even more impressive teamwork by the offense as a whole.
All in all, a brilliant showing by Russell Wilson in this game and he was helped out immensely by that old, tired cliche: big-time players making big-time plays. Doug Baldwin's route adjustment was huge -- Wilson trusted him to run to the back of the endzone or else that would've been a gimme interception. Jermaine Kearse's one-handed catch and run for the touchdown was an enormous play. Luke Willson's run after the catch was again huge. Seattle won because their players made more plays. I know that's a cliche, but that doesn't make it untrue.