For Russell Wilson, avoiding pressure is the key to a Super Bowl win
NEWARK, N.J. -- In the NFL, pressure comes in different forms. For some coaches and players, it's the day-in, day-out grind of the game that eventually strips them down and out. Others prepare ceaselessly so that they can transcend the difficulty of the pro life, but even then there's always a punch in the mouth right around the corner.
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson knows the latter part of that equation. Few players at his position work harder and prepare more intelligently, which is why this second-year star is withing striking distance of a Super Bowl ring two years after every NFL team told him that they didn't deem him worthy of a draft pick higher than 75th overall. But with a lot of early mornings and late nights in the film room, and his own particular leadership acumen, Wilson has become one of the more prominent players on the rise. Except when he's falling to the turf, which happens more often than some would like.
In 2013, Wilson was sacked 33 times with just 393 passing attempts. Peyton Manning, the quarterback on the other side of the field in Super Bowl XLVIII, was taken down just 21 times with 583 attempts. And while that has something to do with Manning's understanding of defenses and ability to distribute the ball in a hurry, Wilson also has a blessing and curse Manning will never possess -- the gift of functional mobility as a runner. And there are times when quarterbacks with that gift should ask for a refund.
Wilson's offensive line has been patchwork all season, especially at guard, and that's a major part of the problem. But there are also times when Wilson tries like crazy to take a play beyond its logical conclusion, leading to some crazy results. Occasionally, he'll hit a receiver deep downfield after his mobility leads to huge holes in pass coverage. More often, a play -- and the drive within that play -- will stop with a quickness, and Seattle's offense will be forced to reset. Head coach Pete Carroll has talked often over the last two seasons about the need to balance Wilson's improvisational skills with his overall efficiency as a quarterback, and that balance can stretch wildly -- sometimes in the same game.
Seattle's 23-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game was a great example. On the first play from scrimmage, Wilson tried to elude pressure and make something special happen outside of structure. Instead, 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith forced a fumble, which he recovered at the Seattle 15-yard line. Seattle's defense held San Francisco to a field goal. But with 8:07 left in the first half, Wilson broke contain, rolled away from pressure, and hit receiver Doug Baldwin for a 51-yard gain. The resulting field goal put the Seahawks on the board at 10-3 and started the ball rolling.
"First play of the game [Smith] made a good play," Wilson said. " I was trying to flip it and he got my forearm just right at the right time, and he made a great play on it. The thing that I've been saying ever since I really started playing football is that you've got to have amnesia playing this position. No matter how good things are going or how bad things are going or whatever the circumstances are, you have to be able to stay one play at a time, and I let that go.
"I actually kind of forgot about the play until you just asked me. So it's just one of those things that you stay in the moment. You believe in yourself. You believe in what you're doing, and there's tons of game left. Luckily our defense did a great job stopping them, only getting the field goal there, and that was huge."
Selective amnesia is one of the most important traits a quarterback can have. As Seahawks general manager John Schneider said Tuesday, Wilson is almost like a great cornerback in that regard -- he can fail and forget at the same time. Then again, real amnesia can result from a lot of head hits, and that's what Wilson's dealt with. In 2013, per Pro Football Focus' metrics, he was pressured -- hit, hurried or sacked -- on a league-leading 43.8 percent of his dropbacks. In the postseason, against the stellar defenses of the Saints and 49ers, Wilson's pressure percentages moved up to 53.7 percent. Denver's defense isn't quite in that realm, but the Broncos have players who can create havoc -- starting with outside pass-rusher Shaun Phillips and potentially ending with rumbling nose tackle Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton. And with Seattle's offense, the ability to create pressure isn't generally opposed by a high bar
Thus, Wilson's teammates and coaches seem beholden to the idea that they must balance risk and reward.
“We pride ourselves a lot on being one of the best at our scramble rules," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said Tuesday of Wilson's mobility, and how that alters the game plans. "There’s got to be some rules to it. The guys really take to it and they understand what’s going to happen with Russell and there’re going to be times that you have to move around.”
NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner played in the NFL from 1998 through 2009. He went to three Super Bowls and won his only ring in his second full season of 1999. Warner told me Tuesday that when it comes to younger signal-callers and pressure, the fine line between play durability and drive sustainability can provide some painful lessons. That's true no matter what kind of quarterback you are, and Warner certainly understands that he came from the more traditional dropback school.
"Well, we're such different quarterbacks," Warner said. "For me, pressure was seeing it and getting [the ball] out of my hand. And if there's one area I think Russell needs to get better at, it's his ability to recognize pressure inside the pocket. To recognize where the holes in defenses are, and get the ball out of his hand. I mean, he's so good with the ball in his hands, and I understand that -- although I should say that I don't understand it, because I could never do what he can do. But because he can create so much, I think he often has the propensity to go, 'OK, the pressure's coming -- I'm not really sure, and I'm going to try to make the play with my feet.' I think we saw that a number of times in the San Francisco game [the NFC Championship win]. He was running around, and he really didn't have a place to go when he couldn't break out of it. A couple times, that really cost his team.
"Sometimes, you have to cut your losses and say, 'OK, I might only complete this pass for four yards, but it keeps us on track.' If it's not him taking a hit and not allowing him to create, it's allowing somebody else to make a play. Then, he only has to make two or three of those special plays every game. That's the area where I think he's got to get better."
Still, Warner also realizes the value of those shot plays outside of structure. Warner created his shot plays in the Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" offense, and later with the Cardinals and Larry Fitzgerald, because he knew how to find them in a harmonious schematic whole. Mobile quarterbacks like Wilson thrive in defensive chaos and confusion, created by themselves.
"Now, I've also seen him break contain against pressure and make enormous plays, because there's just huge holes in the defense," Warner said. "I believe that it's the fine line for these great athletic quarterbacks -- how do I pick and choose? How do I balance getting the ball out of my hands. From throwing it to holding the ball and trying to create. To find the perfect balance where I can be the best quarterback possible. It's a hard thing to do, especially early [in a career]. The good thing is, these guys are good enough, and athletic enough, where they're still putting things together. But it's going to be a battle to find that balance throughout the rest of his career, and I think that's what will sustain him as one of the best quarterbacks in the league."
Warner, who bounced around the NFL and the Arena League before finally hitting it big with the Rams, told me about that thin difference between a great play and a fabulous disaster. In the NFL, such things come up on you quick.
"It didn't take me long, because if I didn't throw those balls, I was getting sacked," he said of his own ability to deal with pressure. "There was nothing else for me to do -- either that pressure was coming and I had to get rid of it, or I was dead man walking back then. That's what's different about these guys -- that's not the case. They could get out of it, but they could also get sacked for eight or 10 yards. That becomes their fine balance of understanding what the situation is, what the pressure is, and what they feel the best opportunity is. That's the whole thing about the quarterback position -- it's being able to see, recognize and react quickly and in the right way to different things that you see. That's what these young quarterbacks are still going to have to learn. Even though they can make plays in a lot of different ways, they'll still have to decipher when is the right time to throw it, take the four yards, and maybe punt, as opposed to trying to run around and get sacked and put their team in a different situation."
Schneider told me that what Wilson does in and out of the pocket really isn't a problem, which reinforces the belief that the Seahawks have made a bargain of sorts between the two Wilsons.
"He's been the same, in my opinion," Schneider said. "He has a certain feel, and he knows where he wants to go and what he wants to do. He's got really quick eyes, and that's where you see him adjust to things on the fly and move around."
Phillips, one of the main men tasked with stopping Wilson this Sunday, said that there's no easy strategy to get that done.
“You don’t stop a guy like that. You go out and play your game, and we have to let him do his thing. We just have to make plays when we need to.” Making plays against Wilson starts and ends with pressure. And if you don't exert it enough, or exact it in the right ways, you'll pay dearly. That's the other, better side of the new risk equation in the NFL.