NFL Film Room - Week 3, 2020 - Russell Wilson: MVP, or Awful cowboys D?
By Tyler Arthur
Last week when I sat down to write my article, the other person who I considered writing about instead of Joe Burrow was Russell Wilson. He started the season absolutely on fire and in Week 2 he dominated, no doubt. But the reason I didn’t rush to write about his crazy five touchdown game was because I had this weird feeling that it wouldn’t be the only time I’d want to write about Russ.
So here we are.
Just seven days after Wilson threw five passing touchdowns for 288 yards (which was just one week removed from him throwing four passing touchdowns for 322 yards, by the way), he decided to take his team to 3-0 by doing it again. This week’s victims were the Dallas Cowboys, and he put up a line of five passing touchdowns and 315 yards in the 38-31 victory – and there was another touchdown that we have all seen, that should have been.
The fact that Russell Wilson has thrown 14 passing touchdowns in his first three games of the year is not just exciting because of how good his level of play is. The most exciting part is that the Seattle offensive gameplan is truly built on his back. He is averaging more than 35 pass attempts a game and his average yards per reception is up at 9. His current pace would put him at 550 passing attempts, a range that we haven’t seen since 2016 and 2017. His efficiency is incredible and if they give him that many passing attempts, his talent will carry this team to the playoffs without breaking a sweat.
The question I wanted to answer this week, however, wasn’t ‘is Wilson really good?’ because we know the answer to that. He is phenomenal. I want to take a look at how easily he was able to tear the Cowboys defense apart, and therefore consider how sustainable his current production is. It felt to me, watching this game, like the Cowboys defense let him throw five passing touchdowns without making a single throw you didn’t expect him to. His best throw of the entire game was undone by DK Metcalf’s rookie mistake. Did Dallas give him an easy ride?
TD1: Laughable Coverage On Lockett
So, let’s get started – we’re going to watch every touchdown that the MVP frontrunner threw this week against the Dallas defense.
The first touchdown of the game came on a broken play that was so bad that it started my questioning of how easily Wilson could put up these touchdowns.
The play call was the true definition of a shot play. They came out in a singleback tight end bunch formation, with Tyler Lockett at the top of the bunch and second-year star DK Metcalf out to the left as the X-receiver. The two other players who were lined up in the bunch both stayed home and blocked for Wilson, and they ran play action to Chris Carson to try and get the defense to bite down on the run. Wilson stood back in the pocket with a shot concept that shouldn’t result in a touchdown, ever.
DK ran an aggressive in-breaking release to an out route with a whip/pivot cut at the top, and then Tyler Lockett had a deep post from the tight slot position. That’s it. This play had two routes in it, and hilariously they both got open. The Cowboys were running a Cover 3 which meant that the cornerback over Metcalf had to deal with him vertically, and then there were three or four defenders who could deal with the rest of the routes – of which there was one, and they failed to deal with it.
As you can see, the cornerback with the responsibility for the deep zone converted his coverage to man when he thought that DK was the only threat and saw that nobody else was heading his way. For the record, this shouldn’t have been an issue, with so little to actually cover on the play. Once this corner was occupied with attempting – and failing – to stop Metcalf one on one, it was up to the two safeties to stop Tyler Lockett’s post route. As became very clear even on the replay on the live broadcast of the game, both safeties completely failed to carry Lockett vertically, and he ended up essentially just blowing straight throw the deep zones and scoring an easy touchdown.
That wasn’t the easiest touchdown Lockett scored this week though, or second easiest…
TD2: Speed And Simplicity
This second TD pass was probably the most-simple, especially in terms of the playcall and scheme. They were down on the one-yard line after a strong Chris Carson run, and they came and lined up nice and fast, and they snapped the ball quickly.
That is basically all it took to win on this play.
Tyler Lockett had a quick out route, and after he threw a slick jab step to the inside first, it was over. The cornerback who was tasked with covering him on this play (it happened so fast it’s pretty hard to recognise what coverage this was, but whether it is man or zone, Lockett was his responsibility) wasn’t even ready when the ball was snapped. You can see in the clip of the play that when Wilson snapped the ball he was casually walking towards the play, and he had his eyes caught in the backfield when Lockett took his first step.
These first two touchdowns established to the Seahawks that if they can give Tyler Lockett a chance to score, he’s going to do it, because the defense looked half asleep against their passing game, and they had given up two TD’s without really doing anything. From a schematic perspective they didn’t have to do much for the first two plays we looked at.
TD3: Pre-Snap Chaos
Tyler Lockett’s third and final touchdown, though, while it was as easy for him as the other two, was at least off a really nice play design.
The Seahawks came out in trips right, and then used two motions to completely change their formation, and set themselves up instead in a tight formation with a tight end on one side and a wide receiver at a wing-back type alignment on the other. They than ran a play with the clear objective of being incredibly chaotic, and to destroy man coverage, having confirmed the man look with their motion pre-snap.
This playcall takes the properties of a mesh or double cross call, but tweaks it to specifically try and get Tyler Lockett open. Lockett has the right-to-left side crossing route, and he gains depth as he moves through traffic, with two routes breaking across from left to right and causing as much of a pile up as possible. Chris Carson has the only other route towards the left side of the field but he keeps his route nice and short so that he doesn’t attract anybody too close to Lockett, who is the primary read on this design. Greg Olsen (the 2 receiver in the original trips who motions to Lockett’s left) has a quick out-breaking route that could get open against man if Lockett draws too much attention, but other than that, this play is all Lockett.
A hat-trick of touchdowns for Lockett, all before halftime, and not a single catch that was even remotely covered or contested. The same cornerback who was just absolutely embarrassed on the second play we looked at gets the unenviable task again of covering the hot-hand in the #16 jersey. He starts with outside-leverage, which basically meant this play was over before it started, and within about three steps of Lockett’s route, he tried to palm him off to the high safety in their Cover-1 shell. Unfortunately, the safety was distracted by the fact that two routes were running directly towards and past him while this communication was taking place, and ignored him.
Looks so easy, doesn’t it.
TD4: Hollister Lets Russ Cook
In the second half, Wilson started throwing the ball to people who weren’t Tyler Lockett too, but it didn’t get any more difficult for him.
When the second half started, the score was 23-15 to Seattle, and then on the very first play of the third quarter, Dak Prescott fumbled the ball, and it was taken down to the five-yard line. One Carson rush attempt later, the Seahawks found themselves one yard from paydirt for the second drive in a row.
This time they came out in a tight I-Formation, with tight end Jacob Hollister in as the fullback. They ran a beautiful play action and Wilson, once again, gets an absolute layup for his fourth TD pass of the day.
It’s very easy not to appreciate this play when you first watch it, and I implore you to replay that clip at least two or three more times, and this time just watch Jacob Hollister throughout the whole play. The beauty of watching NFL film is recognising all of the little nuances and finesse that the players use to succeed at the highest level. Watch how Hollister postures his body in such a way that the outside force defender (the person who he would be blocking on a run play) actually tries to avoid him. Hollister actually made the defender who was most likely to stop him catching the ball literally get out of the way.
Plays like this are why I don’t find it underwhelming to watch Wilson throwing these 10/10 passes that you sit at home and say ‘I could have done that’ – and on this one, to be fair, you might be right – but I enjoy seeing how the play call and the players around him make it so easy for him. Hollister’s acting on this play was perfect and the score completely shifted the game.
Credit to the Cowboys, though, they managed to fight back into the game, and put the Seahawks behind for the first time since the opening drive made it 3-0. The score was 31-38, and the Seahawks got the ball on their 25-yard line to start the drive with 2:12 remaining in the fourth quarter. If you’re this far in this article, you know how this ends.
TD5: Metcalf Makes Amends
Russell Wilson’s fifth passing touchdown of the game came from the 29-yard line, on a deep reception that marked redemption for DK Metcalf, who made a rookie mistake back in the first half that cost the team a TD.
They came out in a gun doubles look, with DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett out to the field side on Russell Wilson’s left. This 3rd down play is designed to give them the best of both worlds, the Switch concept that Lockett and Metcalf are running gives them a chance at a big chunk of yardage, and then the three routes to the boundary side are hoping to keep the chains moving and get a first down.
Greg Olsen motioned in from the outside into a tighter alignment before the snap, and the defense didn’t move, so Wilson knew he had a zone look, and the rest was just a case of seeing who got open.
The defense seems to be in a Cover 4 – although with how the defense played in this game, it’s genuinely hard to tell. The obvious benefit of the quarters (four deep zones) coverage is that you are comfortable against whatever vertical areas of the field get attacked, and you can cover from sideline to sideline far more easily than in a two-high shell. The problem, however, is that the way that the quarters coverage keys can be exploited if the right routes are called against it.
When you are in Cover 4, there is a matching system that the defense uses, which basically converts the four-deep call into a man coverage system. It’s not easy to explain, but essentially the defensive backs look to the deep zone first, and then if the receivers in their quarter of the field don’t push them deep, they have to make sure they still cover them. This means that you can sometimes have a serious disparity in the depth of the four zones. In this particular example, there were no deep routes on the right side of the field, so the two deepest defenders, the cornerback and safety to the boundary side, sat much shallower than the left-field defenders, trying to defend against the short-intermediate range for a first down.
Their issue came when DK Metcalf’s in breaking route sent him towards the space directly behind them. If you watch the play closely, you can see that the sophomore wideout is actually completely wide open when his dagger route (I don’t think it had any intention to go as deep as it did), but as he turns to look for the ball, he clearly recognises the void out in front of him, and he speeds up.
This isn’t just Metcalf being smart, this is Russell Wilson recognising an opportunity and being able to trust his talent and his receiver to go for the bigger shot on a third down. The left safety had absolutely no chance of making this play once he let DK break across his face. The coverage itself didn’t actually break down on this play, because under the usual quarters match coverage that left-middle safety’s zone should be the one that follows a post route, especially because the wheel route from Tyler Lockett was perfectly guarded down the sideline. He just couldn’t keep up with DK once he recognised that he could head to the end zone.
My biggest takeaway from watching the Seahawks so far this season is that Russell Wilson is absolutely amazing, but if they scheme and playcall well, he doesn’t even have to be. This game was a perfect demonstration that when you are under the amount of pressure that Wilson’s talent puts you under, you’re going to make mistakes, and Pete Carroll and Brian Schottenheimer know that.
To beat this Seattle team, you’re going to need to play great on both sides of the ball, and you’re going to have to try and force them to go back to their run-heavy ways of recent seasons if you want to avoid your defensive backs needing oxygen after each drive, chasing Metcalf and Lockett around.
As an NFL fan – especially a Seahawks fan – it’s really good to see them letting Wilson off the leash and having a pass heavy offense, but as an analyst the thing that excites me the most about this week is that I was able to talk about how the Cowboys defense was to blame in many of the plays we broke down today, and that means you guys won’t mind me going back to him when he throws five touchdowns again later in the year.
Watching Wilson is going to be fun all year, with serious MVP traction already, and I’ll keep breaking down how he does it as we go, so let’s just hope for more crazy performances down the stretch and we will see if this team can really make another Super Bowl run.
A graduated Journalism student, Tyler also writes for Read American Football and Gridiron Hub. He played Wide Receiver and eventually Quarterback for his university team at DMU, and is now using his knowledge and passion for learning to dive deeper into the analysis of X’s and O’s in the NFL.