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Seahawks WR DK Metcalf Taking Next Step Over Middle

Matty F. Brown breaks down a trio of plays illustrating Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf's transformation into an all-around threat at wideout.

DK Metcalf has started 2021 well. In his third year of NFL football, the Seahawks receiver has caught 25 passes for 383 yards and 5 touchdowns. More impressive than the explosive production, the 2018 second round draft pick continues to improve the technique in his game as he ascends to being one of the league’s most dominant offensive weapons.

This is especially obvious in Metcalf’s route running over the middle of the field. In the five games we’ve watched this season, Metcalf has blended his technical work with his athletic gifts to beat a nickel, a linebacker and a cornerback. One-on-one, Metcalf has become an even bigger problem for defenses. 

Colts (Nickel):

Week 1 versus the Colts is the first example. Seattle’s offense had experienced an explosive-less third quarter where it struggled to move the football. With 6:46 remaining in the game, leading 21-10 and back in the red zone, this 2nd and 6 touchdown to Metcalf was a game-sealing relief for the Seahawks.

Metcalf was intelligent in his route stem, aiming outside to widen the available space for the eventual cut in his route. He knew what kind of coverage he was getting and was able to react to the seam match technique of the cover 3 well. 

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As Colts nickel corner Kenny Moore matched Metcalf vertically, the deep safety in the post headed over to the other seam route of tight end Will Dissly, influenced by quarterback Russell Wilson looking him that way. 

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Metcalf, having maximized the available room, then cut with an angle that kept him heading towards the end zone while also boxing out the defender. He was able to catch the touchdown with strong hands away from his frame. 

Afterwards, Wilson gave us rare insight into the process behind Metcalf’s touchdown route.

“The touchdown to DK, it was perfect,” Wilson said in his post-game press conference. “We spent probably an hour and a half one day on just seam routes, spending time together early in the morning in San Diego. It literally came to life.

“That’s the best part, when you get to spend that much time with stuff and visualize and watch it on the film, critiquing what I could have done different or what that guy could have done different. ‘Hey, what if I do this like this?’ And then it shows up. That’s the mastery we want to get to with the thought process and the play. It showed up tonight.

“I think the details of that route and that play and the thought process and the angle of it. It was to perfection. It was a teach tape one—just to know what he’s seeing, what I’m seeing, the whole thing coming together. It’s a beautiful puzzle, and you have to be able to put it all together.”

49ers (Linebacker):

After Wilson commanded the tempo of this Seattle offensive drive expertly, shifting from under center 12 personnel into this spread empty 3x2 formation, Metcalf took full advantage. Wilson and the Seahawks offense were surely aware of San Francisco's likely automatic checks to this shift. And they got base personnel as an added bonus!

San Francisco looked to bring pressure off the strong-side slot via a 3-deep, 3-under fire zone. This meant that there was no designated low hole defender, an element exacerbated by the spread nature of Seattle's formation. 

Metcalf, essentially, was one-on-one with SAM linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair. The defender in weak hot to 2 coverage versus this offensive look is essentially trying to play aggressive underneath defense which protects and walls the open low middle of the field. 

Therefore, Metcalf had a difficult task in running his slant route into the very leverage that Al-Shaair was seeking to defend. The receiver used a beautiful basketball-style crossover release towards the numbers to widen the linebacker.

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To then access the low hole, Metcalf worked a half-step stutter that dropped the weight to the outside before bursting inside—like a downhill, slalom skier. This had Al-Shaair crossed up, stepping outside at the moment of the cut. An NFL ankle-breaker.

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Metcalf burst across the middle of the field, swiping his hands to ensure Al-Shaair was not able to impede him. Open for Wilson, he caught the ball in his chest and ran over the deep middle 1/3 safety for the touchdown.

"That release is one he did in practice a couple of weeks ago, that we saw was exactly the same what he did in practice, and had the same kind of result," Carroll described the Monday after to 710 ESPN Seattle. "Just, I mean, an impossible release to stay with in that short area and Russ was right on it and all that." 

Rams (Cornerback):

Finally, we have Metcalf beating star Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey on a skinny post. This was the most 'pure-speed' win we have seen from Metcalf, yet it still featured route running technique and spacial understanding.

Seattle's gun trips bunch formation revealed a contour of the Rams defense that strongly suggested man coverage on the 2nd and 6. Indeed, post-snap, LAR rotated their weak safety down and played cover 1 rat with Metcalf facing Ramsey.

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Metcalf, away from the safety rotation and with Wilson trying his best to hold safety Taylor Rapp to the trips-side for as a long as possible, just needed to create enough room to squeeze in between Ramsey and the deep 1/3 safety.

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Metcalf accelerated into his speed cut well and burst across the face of Ramsey. He made his cut at the exact right time after his speed backed Ramsey off some. There was little wasted movement and Metcalf only got faster into the room. 

Crucially, Metcalf was able to maintain his speed as he then looked back for the football, preventing Ramsey from catching him. Metcalf adjusted to the ball, thrown with trust-filled anticipation from WIlson, and made the catch with strong hands away from his frame. 

Metcalf was then able to dip his near pads down to absorb the low hit of Rapp, imposing his physicality and protecting the ball. The receiver then fell forwards into the endzone.

The Future

"He's becoming a really loaded up player now. His releases are good, his power shows, his speed shows," was Carroll's evaluation after the 49ers game of Metcalf's progress.

Metcalf being a big-bodied target for Wilson to trust with over the middle throws was a massive element for the offense’s passing game. Now, with Wilson landing on injured reserve following the surgery to repair his middle finger, how Metcalf meshes with replacement quarterback Geno Smith will be an interesting element.

Smith, on if he had worked out with Metcalf before, responded: “Yeah, his rookie year we, you know, he came down [to Florida], worked out a little bit and, you know, whenever’s he’s down there, we get a chance to link up, we work out and get some work in.”

The touchdown Smith hit to Metcalf versus the Rams suggests a certain chemistry exists between the two; Metcalf managed to creep behind and outside the cornerback on his go route and Smith managed to loft the football over the defender with touch. 

What's certain: all of Metcalf's skill and development will be needed as the Seahawks offense enters this difficult period.