Russell Wilson is likely to finish another season without an MVP vote. That seems almost impossible given WIlson’s production early in the season. But over the past few weeks, the Let Russ Cook movement has ignited a few fires in the kitchen.
Among 39 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts this season, Wilson now ranks 11th in Expected Points Added per pass attempt through Week 13, per Sports Info Solutions. That’s a stark drop from the start of the season when Wilson was easily a top-three quarterback.
Some of the biggest struggles have come over the past few weeks as defenses have adjusted to a pass-heavy Seattle offense.
From Weeks 1-9, the Seahawks ranked fourth in passing DVOA, according to Football Outsiders, while that has dropped to 15th since Week 9. Even at an above average level of production, the drop is more noticeable when it was the offense that needed to carry a defense that ranks 22nd in DVOA and 27th against the pass,
Despite the search for more balance on offense from head coach Pete Carroll, the Seahawks haven’t completely abandoned the pass. Seattle ranked second in early down pass rate in the first three quarters over the first eight weeks of the season and while that has dropped to 10th from Week 9 on, the percentage has barely changed — 59% down to 58%. The problem is how well the Seahawks have passed on those early downs. Over the first half of the season, Seattle averaged 9.4 yards per attempt on those early down throws, but that has dropped to just 7.3 yards per attempt since Week 9.
The question, of course, becomes why such a dip in production?
A theory is that defenses have adjusted to Seattle’s pass-heavy ways and have started to play the pass more with two-high safety coverages. But just changing the safeties hasn’t done a lot to Wilson’s metrics. He’s been better against single-high looks that leave man coverage on the outside, but the numbers don’t show a complete fall off a cliff as would be expected by the perception.
Russell Wilson vs Safety Alignment, 2020
|Safety Alignment||Comp/Att (%)||YPA||Sack%||EPA/Att||Positive Play%|
Wilson has a higher completion percentage and higher positive play rate against two-high coverages but the big plays down the field haven’t come as often. Even though that coverage isn’t the automatic way to slow down the quarterback, it has limited the explosive upside of D.K. Metcalf.
Most of Metcalf’s damage this season has come against single-high man coverage. Think about what Metcalf was able to do against Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Darius Slay, when the Eagles stubbornly stuck to their single-high looks. Even when Slay was in good coverage, Metcalf was able to find a way to create an opportunity for a reception. Wilson is more likely to trust Metcalf in those one-on-one situations than when there’s more safety help over the top.
D.K. Metcalf vs Safety Alignment
Like anything in football, talent and execution need to be present in addition to scheme. In Week 3, the Cowboys tried to use two safeties but as they struggled with talent at cornerback and safety, as well as any type of defensive communication early in the season, Wilson and Metcalf both had productive days.
That Dallas game was the third-most snaps the Seahawks have seen against a two-high look while the other two came within the past three games, against the Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants. Those also were Wilson’s two worst games of the season but the plan by those defenses wasn’t to just sit in two-high looks, it was to make Wilson question what the defense was going to do on a given snap.
Some plays, defenses were able to just line up with two deep safeties and win the play. Against the Rams, the Seahawks had a first-and-10 early in the second quarter. No defensive movement on the motion gave Wilson a zone read, but Jalen Ramsey stayed in man against Metcalf on the left side while the rest of the defense dropped back. A linebacker also dropped into the middle of the field throwing lane in front of Metcalf and Wilson rushed a deep throw to Tyler Lockett, which was well covered by the two safeties.
On the next play, Seattle’s motion worked against the offense. Freddie Swain motioned across the formation then broke for orbit motion behind the quarterback. Initially, Troy Hill did not follow Swain, but eventually Hill crossed the formation and changed his blitzing lane. Hill was able to create pressure and Wilson threw the ball away for intentional grounding.
Later in the game, the Rams disguised their pass rush on a first-and-10 in the third quarter. Leonard Floyd lined up wide of the tight end and linebacker Micah Kiser rushed inside the right tackle. It was just a four-man rush, but the Rams created a two-on-one and Floyd had an easy unblocked path to Wilson.
The Giants did more work to mix up the pre- and post-snap reads throughout the game with a late rotation of safeties and disguised pass rushes, sometimes on the same play. Here the Giants had a late safety drop and a corner blitz that replaced a dropping linebacker for just a four-man rush. Wilson rushed out of the pocket and missed a throw to Lockett on a shallow cross.
Early in the game, the Seahawks had a third-and-4. The Giants came out in an amoeba front we’ve seen from the likes of the Miami Dolphins and other defenses this season. There’s just one-down lineman as the rest of the defense gives no pre-snap indication of responsibilities. At the snap, the Giants dropped into a single-high look and rushed just four. Giants linebacker Tae Crowder jumped gaps late and had an unblocked sack against Wilson.
A key to the Giants’ post-snap movement was their ability to create pressure. Even against the Rams, Wilson faced pressure on nine attempts against two-high safeties. He was able to pull away with a 55% positive play rate. But against the Giants and another nine attempts, Wilson had just a 25% positive play rate with -7.22 EPA alone on those plays.
Without a key to what the defense was going to do, Wilson struggled with his decision making and looked like the Wilson of the past few years who was left to create on his own on long third downs. That’s what should be troubling for the Seahawks going forward. With so much changing around him, Wilson has fallen back into bad habits of leaving the pocket and expecting pressure. That’s led to rushed throws and sacks.
Seattle could help itself out with more Cover 2 beaters schemed up instead of hoping for the receivers to work their way open, which is how they succeeded early in the year.
This isn’t necessarily a blueprint any team can follow. The Rams have the talent in the secondary to play deep and the game-changers along the defensive line to push the pocket. The Giants made a big gamble by creating so much havoc before and after the snap to make up for the talent they don’t have. But the problem is some of the defenses Seattle will face at the end of the season and into the playoffs are likely to be units that can give the Seahawks trouble should nothing change. Seattle should get a reprieve with the Jets in Week 14, but they end the season against Washington, another matchup with the Rams, and 49ers.
Defenses around the league have started to figure out answers for Seattle’s passing offense. Letting Russ cook worked to start the season, but if the Seahawks are going to make a long run in the playoffs, the passing offense is going to need a few more spices in the recipe.