Thursday, January 30, 2014

QB Corner - Russell Wilson (SEA @ SF)

Congratulations to the 2013 Seattle Seahawks who have become the 2nd youngest team to make the Super Bowl. They even have a coach that looks young (despite being 62). Crucially, they are led by a young, dynamic QB, a player that has surpassed all expectations and taken the league by storm. In only his second year, Russell Wilson has exhibited tremendous command of the offense and perhaps become the league's most valuable player due to his absurd cap number of only $681 thousand. Peyton Manning may be better, but with a cap hit of $17.5 million, is he really 25x better? I think not.

First, the numbers:

Outside of not throwing as much of some of the other QBs (which make sense for a power running team), Wilson was slightly above average in almost every category. His gross yards/attempt was second in this group, he has an adequate completion %, and doesn't throw very many picks.

The problem? He takes a ton of sacks. Some of this is because his offensive line has struggled with injuries, though they are getting guys back for the Super Bowl. Part of it is because he tries like made to keep plays alive as long as possible. The net effect is that his adjusted yards/attempt is only 7.10, third behind Nick Foles and Drew Brees. One of those guys had career year and the other is one of the top 5 QBs in the game. With his absurdly low salary and stats the belie his years, Russell can legitimately stake a claim among that top 5 conversation.

Let's substantiate the stats with some tape! The tape I'll use is from the Seahawk's Week 14 loss to the 49ers in Candlestick. I actually prepared this for the NFC Championship but was unable to cut all the film in time. I thought about using film from that game instead, but decided not to because the Seattle passing game was out of sorts that whole game and Russell only made 2-3 significant throws. Also, I felt like his performance wasn't all that different from what happened in this game.

As always, I watched every pass multiple times but will only post stills from the more interesting ones:

Jump to the Conclusion
1. The first play of the game is a play-action pass that freezes the linebackers and opens a throwing lane to comeback route. Pete Carroll frequently calls play-action as his first play - the defense is usually playing the run and it allows his QB to build confidence and rhythm through an easy completion. His USC teams would frequently open with play-action bootlegs with the tight end as the target, one of the easiest throws in football. Fast forward to the NFC Championship game - the first play was also a P/A boot that ended in disaster as Aldon Smith read pass the whole way and strip-sacked Wilson. But I digress.
With no pressure, Wilson's footwork is on-point.
 Good job stepping into the throw with his chest facing the receiver at release; the pass is right on target:

2. The Seahawks use a pick route (yellow circle) to free the seam and a crosser over the middle, but the 49ers are having none of it.
Aldon Smith got a great jump on the snap - he was doing this all day. In the NFC Championship, the Seahawks used Aldon's instincts against him by drawing him offsides on the go-ahead TD to Baldwin.
Wilson takes of to his right. I don't like the way he's swinging the ball (red arrow) like a madman. Aldon can almost swat it away here:
In the next frame, Wilson has done a good job bringing the ball up and securing it with both hands, and I like how he keeps his eyes downfield...
...but the football gods demand punishment for his earlier transgression. Aldon Smith strips him and recovers with a shot to score. This is why I harp on ball security. I know he's hustling, but I'd rather Wilson get tripped for a sack than risk losing the ball like this. Think of the strip on the first play of the NFC Championship - if Aldon takes it to the house, or if the 49ers score a TD on their next possession instead of a field goal, the 49ers would have been down by only 2 at the end of the game (assuming the rest of the game plays out the same, a big if, but just play along).
The 49ers reached 1st and 10 at the Seahawks' 19 with under a minute left. Down by 6, they had to try for the end zone. But if the margin was 2? They run Frank Gore a few times, kick the game-winning field goal, and the Seahawks go to the Pro Bowl. This is a silly conjecture, but it points out the very real consequences of ball insecurity - it makes this great Seahawks team slave to the whims of a lucky (or unlucky bounce).

3. Aldon again gets a great jump. Both receivers in the flats are open but Smith closes the first throwing lane on the left side.
Nothing open over the middle, Russell doesn't panic but backs up five yards.
Good job avoiding the scrum, not panicking, and getting his feet in order:
Perfect throw. As you'll see, Russell's ability to set his feet on the move makes him the great improviser he is.

4. Quick pass complete to RB in the flat, minimal gain.

5. Russell does a great job selling play fakes:
He extends the ball longer than most young QBs; this makes the fake more convincing but leaves him turned away from the field for longer. He's able to do this because he knows he can progress quickly through reads after the fake.
His read is down the middle but there are a bevy of linebackers that didn't bite on the fake:
Second read is the right sideline:
Again, fantastic job getting his front shoulder square despite throwing on the run.
The pass is on the money but the corner broke on the ball well enough to break it up. Still a good decision + throw:

6. Aldon Smith better be paying rent; he's living in the backfield.
Even though this ends in a sack, I like how Russell keeps his eyes up and moves forward in the pocket. Other young QBs (Cam Newton in particular) love to spin and sprint backwards, often leading to bigger losses.

7. Starts off facing right, works back to the middle.
Diving linebacker barely prevents a big completion.

8. The 49ers use a zone blitz to get 5 rushers to the right side of the offense line, dropping Aldon Smith into coverage. They have man coverage on the three receivers with a safety on each side.
Verticals clear the man coverage, leaving Aldon Smith on a tight-end crossing the field. 
Russell stays calm, keeps his feet aligned to the throw, and hits his target. Great protection, too, which was not usually the case this afternoon. 
Note to Vic Fangio: you probably don't want Aldon Smith dropping into coverage:

9. Nicely thrown deep comeback but Golden Tate pushed off.
10. Sacked on 3rd and 15; 49ers covered deep routes well and 6 Seattle blockers couldn't handle 4 rushers.

11. Fantastic throw: Russell start on his left and works right. It's harder going right because the QB often has to shuffle both feet around. The image quality is horrible but believe me when I say his footwork is correct.

12. Faked the inside zone handoff, working left. Aldon is flying of the edge, forcing Russell right.
Needs to be stronger with the ball, but never gives up on his reads.
Again, above average at getting his left foot forward despite the tough throw on the run.
The throw was on target but good coverage makes it incomplete.

13.  Chased from the pocket again, Russell does a better job keeping the ball higher. Good footwork = good pass.

14: After a steady diet of runs, a crossing route over the middle.
It's an easy pass but Russell is standing a little too upright for me. You can't see it well but both of his heels are touching the ground. I like QBs to be a little more athletic in their stance, knees bent with their weight on their toes in case they to adjust their footwork. This pass was complete for a 1st down though.

15. Aldon again flies around the edge. Seattle are counting their lucky stars Von Miller is out of the Super Bowl.
Russell smartly takes a step forward making Aldon overshoot him. Look at how scared the 49ers are of Russell taking off: they have three rushers spying. Three! Great footwork on the pass. A little pressure is no reason to abandon fundamentals.
This shot shows how Russell hits his man in stride making the catch easy and allowing him to avoid the next tackler and score from 20 yards out.

16. Checkdown, linebacker tipped it away.

17. The 49ers send 5. Given how poorly the Seattle line has played, this can't end well, right?
And the center/guard miss a protection exchange leaving a rusher (looks like Ahmad Brooks) free up the middle. So much for blocking inside out. Good thing Lynch is there as the last line of defense.
Russell doesn't panic and his is footwork precise. He steps forward, trusting his running back to stop the blitzer. The result is a diving completion to a well-covered receiver. Great QBs love to be blitzed because it opens holes in the secondary.

18. Russell again shows off his ability to move his feet with his eyes. His first read is on the right side.
That read isn't there so he looks left at the secondary read.
Rather than sling it with his feet out of position, Russell gets his feet in order.
Nothing is there, so he works back to the right side.
Sets his feet as he throws and completes to a wide open target.
The protection on this play was superb, but part of that protection happened because the 49ers were afraid of what Wilson can do outside the pocket. He has earned some of that protection. Either way, not many QBs can switch from one side of the field to the other, and back again, all while keeping their feet moving.

19. This play seems simple: a 3 yard out to the left sideline on 3rd down and 3, an easy conversion to keep the drive alive. The 49ers aren't going to make it that simple though: notice how both defenders are in neutral stances and have their eyes glued on Wilson. This tips Russell that they are in zone coverage and will break quickly on a short pass, the result likely a batted ball or even an interception.
But zone coverage isn't omnipotent. Russell understands there will be a sliver of space between the shallow and deep defenders, so he guns a throw over the short zone.
The safety made an impressive play to get there before the ball, but this was the right throw to make. Importantly, Russell avoided what could have been a bad turnover.

20. Short curl, complete.

21. Flushed from the pocket yet again, buys time by rolling right and throws a strike.
Ball gets a little loose here...
...but a good job of securing it with both hands. He keeps his front shoulder pointed downfield.

22. Pocket collapses again, Russell runs forward for minimal gain.

23. Bubble screen. Nice play call to get the ball in space with blockers on a side where the closest defender is 10 yards away.

24. Easy completion to the tight end in the flat.

25. Man the Seattle tackles are having a rough game. I saw only some of the all-22 film, but the receivers seem like they had trouble getting open quickly, necessitating some longer drops.
I hate to keep harping on this but Russell has to keep the ball up:
Great job reading the linebacker. What is with the guy (yellow circle) Tebowing?
This is why you love Wilson: he flips the ball to Golden Tate and almost turned a broken play into a huge 3rd and 5 conversion. The ball is a little low though and Tate can't haul it in.

26. This was Russell's only "bad" pass. The Seahawks got great field position after a big punt return. This year, the 49ers coverage teams were frequently unable to get downfield fast enough to cover the punts.
The 49ers have man coverage under with zone over the top. Russell tries to hit a receiver as the cornerback passes him on to the safety.
Russell leads his man right into the safety, a dangerous throw. There is some space to the sideline; maybe the route is straight downfield, but great QB/WR combos have the chemistry to make this sort of back shoulder adjustment.

27. The last meaningful pass. The 49ers come with a zone blitz; Russell correctly reads which dropping defender is not a cover guy (red circle) and attacks him.
Good footwork during a blitz leads to a completion between 3 defenders.

Russell's last throw was a desperation pass when the game's outcome was already decided.



First, some context:

Run Threat
Before we get to strengths and weaknesses, there's one thing that we didn't looked at: Russell Wilson, run threat. The 49ers consistently had guys assigned to spy Wilson and were preoccupied with him on run fakes like this:
Look how out of position Aldon Smith is because he has to honor the Wilson fake.

The Seahawks looked content to led Russell hand off and save his legs (and hits) for later. On this inside zone handoff, the Seahawks actually have numbers on the weak side, but Wilson hands the ball off. My guess is that these aren't truly "read" plays in that the QB doesn't have the freedom to pull the ball and run. I expected to see more true reads in the NFC Championship, but can't recall Russell breaking any huge runs in those situations. Something to keep an eye on for the Super Bowl where the Seattle coaches will presumably use every tactic they can muster.

Offensive Line
Russel's line was truly offensive in this game. 49ers rushers were beating them on bull rushes, speed rushes, twists and stunts - even when San Francisco sent only two men at Wilson, those two were able to disrupt plays. During the second half of the NFC Championship, when it became apparent that the 49ers defensive line was dominating yet again, Seattle went with 6 linemen in a desperate effort to run the ball, and that turned out to be very effective. Denver is missing their best pass rusher for the Super Bowl, but Seattle's line has also gone through a few different starters. The line must to hold better than this for Wilson to have much success this Sunday.

I love Doug Baldwin. He works hards, runs good routes, and has steady hands. He is emblematic of a receiving core that maximizes their talent. Problem is they were in invisible in this game and for much of the NFC title game. There were some big passing plays mixed in, but I think Seattle will need some more consistency from this bunch, especially on 3rd down. Doug Baldwin ranked 2nd in Football Outsiders' regular season WR DVOA and Golden Tate ranked 19th; now they need to play like it.

Back to Wilson:

  1. Reads. It is unfair when people label Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick as one-read QBs. It's impossible to succeed in the NFL without the ability to make depth or left/right reads. But Wilson is clearly one step ahead of those guys in terms of how fast he makes his reads, recognizes blitzes, identifies weak defenders, and moves from one side of the field to the other. I wouldn't be surprised to see Seattle give him more freedom at the line of scrimmage next year.
  2. Footwork and mechanics. I didn't see one case where his footwork was egregiously off. Despite constant harassment by rushers, Wilson stepped up for each throw and delivered accurately.
  3. Throwing on the move. Colin Kaepernick and RG3 may be more exciting in space and Cam Newton is probably the best short-yardage QB in the league. But none of the other young signal callers is as good a quarterback outside the pocket as Russell Wilson. In fact, I'll take it a step further: I think when the pocket breaks down and the QB is forced to run, Russell Wilson is the best QB in the league.
  4. Stays away from trouble. Russell just doesn't make dumb mistakes. He doesn't try to manufacture things when they aren't there. He understands his limitations as a thrower and for the most part, doesn't try to fit the ball into a place it doesn't belong. 
  5. Cool under pressure. The 49ers were very effective at getting to Russell, but late in the game, Wilson maintained confidence in his line and RBs to protect him.
  1. Ball security. Russell generally does a good job holding the ball high in a throwing stance once he escapes the pocket. But sometimes when he's trying to escape, the ball gets away from his body.
  2. Chemistry with receivers. This is really a nit. The 49ers made some nice plays on the ball in this game, and I think a little more experience playing together will help both Russell and the WRs learn how to shield the ball and complete a few of those 50/50 plays.
  3. Fight another day. I love how Russell fights every play and tries so hard to keep each play alive. It's hard to tell him to stop doing that. But as he matures, he needs to learn that sometimes it's okay to throw the ball away. He only took two sacks in this game (including the strip), but a 9.8% sack rate is not sustainable. A few checkdowns here or there keeps the defense honest and keeps the QB healthy.
That's it for weaknesses. I really can't say that Wilson did much wrong against one of the league's fiercest defenses playing in their house. Wilson is a well-coached, smart, exciting, and fundamentally sound player that can lead his team to a win. What else can you ask from a franchise QB? He's more consistent than Colin, Cam, and Robert. He's more athletic and makes better organic reads than Nick Foles. He makes more big plays than Andrew Luck. You hear all the time how some of those guys have higher "ceilings" than Russell. But you know what? Russell is the best young quarterback in the league, RIGHT NOW. I'm not saying one of the others doesn't eventually surpass him. But after seeing how hard he works, feeling the charisma he brings to the huddle, and witnessing his amazing results, are you really willing to bet against him?

#YMTC #YouMakeTheCalls #QBCorner

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