Film Breakdown: Tracking Seahawks WR DK Metcalf's Rise to Superstardom

Matty F. Brown

DK Metcalf is enjoying an incredible second NFL campaign. From a season-wide perspective, this is obvious. However, after a disappointing matchup against the Rams - a game where Russell Wilson had one of the worst performances of his career - and a patchy, though productive, showing versus the Cardinals, it’s always fun to remind yourself of how far Metcalf has come.

On Thursday Night Football, Metcalf had three catches for 46 yards and a touchdown on his stat line. He dropped what would have been a second touchdown in the back of the endzone on a Wilson heater that the quarterback likened to a “Randy Johnson fastball.” It’s possible the defender location and/or the bright lights obscured Metcalf’s vision until it was too late.

NFL Next Gen Stats had Peterson covering Metcalf on 76 percent of routes and holding him to two catches for 21 yards on three targets. However, but for a questionable Damien Lewis holding penalty, Metcalf’s 41-yard go ball catch, roasting Peterson, would have stood. Metcalf was nightmarish for Peterson. If the All-Pro corner can’t hang with the receiver one-on-one, then who can? The Patrick Peterson numbers were a case of basic statistics not featuring enough context.

Metcalf’s other drop, on an over route beating Peterson following play action, spoke to the real challenge for the second-year weapon. On the play, Metcalf wrestled with the football, looking to transition from pass catcher to runner too quickly and vigorously. This is a man so talented, so big, so tall, so powerful, and so supremely athletic that his most difficult opponent is himself. Not only is the 22-year-old still learning his body and muscle movements, he is still learning the art of receiving. Certain situations are fresh to him; he is green to stuff more than your seasoned college veteran.

Coming into the league, the 2019 second-round pick was still relatively new to elite football where athletes are closer to his level. That’s because Metcalf played sporadically during his time in the SEC. As a 2016 freshman, he saw action in two games before suffering a foot injury that resulted in a medical redshirt. Metcalf’s 2017 redshirt freshman year was impressive - 39 catches, 646 receiving yards, seven touchdowns in 12 games. In 2018 he was on pace to improve his production, but then Metcalf suffered a season-ending, career-threatening neck injury in the seventh game of his redshirt sophomore season.

In many ways, the Arizona win was reminiscent of Metcalf’s rookie NFL year. It was a clear he was the most dangerous player on the field. He was utterly dominant. Yet the precociousness of a lot of Metcalf’s skill was obvious too. His raw ability can be refined. It’s what gives him a cathedral-high ceiling, the potential to be as dominant as he wants to be.

This is not to say Metcalf has not improved since becoming a Seahawk; quite the opposite. Signs of progression are visible. His college release plans gained plaudits for their technical acumen and Metcalf has never been about pure athletic dominance - despite this being an obvious blessing. Yet with the Seattle-level of coaching and quarterbacking, Metcalf’s growth from rookie to now is astounding.

This was something that offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer envisioned back in April 2020 when he said, “The number one thing that we know is that we can move him around and do different things with him."

“I just think the flexibility of moving him around, introducing some different route concepts that we could kind of get him up to speed on that will protect or complement the things that he’s put on film will just be an incredible, incredible advantage for us as we head into the next season.”

In terms of moving Metcalf around, anecdotally this has felt more of a thing than the numbers of Pro Football Focus indicate. Their charting offers a 2019 to 2020 comparison that doesn’t match this stated goal of moving around more.

In 2019 Metcalf spent 61.4 percent of snaps at left wide receiver, 29.5 percent of snaps at right wide receiver, and 13.8 percent of his snaps in the slot. Though 10 games of 2020, Metcalf has 65.6 percent of snaps at left wide receiver, 29.2 percent of snaps at right wide receiver, and 14.7 percent of his snaps in the slot

“He kind of got stuck at the ‘X’ receiver last year,” Schottenheimer revealed in the pre-season. The coordinator's moving around comments were never solely about Metcalf being on the left, the right or the inside of the formation. They were also referring to Metcalf’s ability to line on or off the line of scrimmage, numbers that PFF does not provide in their elite-package charting. X - the split end - is the receiver aligned on the line of scrimmage outside.

“What’s different this year and last year is our ability to move DK around,” Schottenheimer emphasized in his Week 9 Press Conference after Metcalf destroyed the 49ers for 12 catches, 161 yards, and three touchdowns.

“I think that’s what makes it hard on the opponent,” Schottenheimer continued, talking about both Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. “It’s not the fact that the two guys are out there, there’s other teams that have really good tandems of receivers, but I think it’s that we can move them around and put them in different spots, they’re almost interchangeable in a lot of ways.”

Seattle in 2020 is able to dress up their core concepts in a ton of different looks. They have the tight ends to do this, even after Greg Olsen’s injury, but they also have the skill sets at receiver too. Schottenheimer summarized what he can do with Metcalf and Lockett, telling reporters “sometimes they’re on the same side, sometimes they’re on opposite sides, sometimes DK’s in the slot, sometimes Tyler’s outside.”

Another offseason claim from Schotty that is more noticeable is Metcalf’s route-running, as he excitedly added, “There are so many more routes he can run."

Metcalf’s mismatch potential means that he is a player that you want to get the football to, the more ways the better. Staying fresh and diverse in ways to attack the leverage of defenses is vital, particularly when a defense dares to leave an obvious one-on-one to the side of Metcalf. It was new moves that caused issues for Peterson.

We also saw a nasty route from Metcalf facing the 49ers and Jason Verrett. It looked similar to a blaze out, explained in the below image taken from the 2018 Kyle Shanahan route tree. Shanahan and Schottenheimer don’t use the exact same terminology, but there is some carryover - for instance both have a COP route in their attack - so we are assuming blaze out matches too.

blazer blaze out
Kyle Shanahan 2018 "Blazer" and "Blaze Out"

The route is akin to a shortened, sped-up post-corner route. Rather than trying to deceive the corner into biting on an over or crossing route, the receiver is looking to work the leverage of the corner head up or inside before breaking to the outside. It’s something that only the very best in the business get the chance to run.

Metcalf ran his route from a wider split so had to gain leverage inside versus the outside shade corner. Wilson knew pre-snap he had zone coverage. Firstly, he had a corner over his tight end split out wide. Then Seattle shifted from their 12 personnel 3x1 into a nub 2x2 pair formation. This further confirmed zone. After the shotgun play action bootleg and a safety rotating down, Wilson wanted Metcalf’s one-on-one.

Metcalf began his route pressing vertical, before stemming inside to the numbers. This achieved the desired effect of lessening the corner’s outside leverage, working him to the inside. Jason Verrett sat at the break point near the numbers, looking to attack a dig route. 

metcalf 1
Attack vertical with long strides and sprinter approach
metcalf 2
Stem inside to the numbers with head fake
metcalf 3
Throw head over toe with cornerback now inside

Metcalf naturally requires more steps in his cuts than a smaller type of receiver, but his ability to throw his weight over his toes meant he came out of the cut well enough — 3 cone truthers, get out of here. His speed and catching radius enabled him to come back to the football for the 15-yard catch. Metcalf is running great routes that work for him.

“We can do so much more stuff with DK now,” Schottenheimer reflected in the week after Metcalf ran this route. “Year 2, more comfortable in the offense, more comfortable running all the different routes that we do.”

Week-by-week, Metcalf has run routes we haven’t seen from this offense before. It’s been personalized to unlock his true potential.

Due to the difficulty defenders have in coverage with Metcalf, they are forced to cheat certain patterns. Adding new routes and techniques to his game is one way for Metcalf to keep things fresh, avoiding becoming overly predictable. Yet the receiver’s intelligence in-game has also enhanced his ability to punish overplaying defensive backs.

“He’s a tremendously smart football player, he really is,” Schottenheimer confirmed in his Week 9 Press Conference. “He picks things up well, he makes adjustments quick on game day, he’s to the point now where he’s communicating things to the coaches to tell me about the way guys are playing him.”

Schottenheimer then provided a case study.

“For example, we’re playing Atlanta, going back his first game of his second year, and he’s talking about the technique, the way the corners were playing him. And he’s giving us suggestions of ‘hey, I can beat the guy on this’. That’s unusual for a young player. So it started last year, but it’s grown exponentially with just his understanding of the game and his knowledge of the game of football.”

That Falcons game is perfect. Both Atlanta cornerbacks were camping on Metcalf’s slant or drift route in different ways.

Right cornerback Isaiah Oliver was uber aggressive in press coverage, attempting to go pound-for-pound with Metcalf while heavily playing inside.

On the other side of the field, A.J. Terrell opted for off coverage, but drove hard on the inside break of Metcalf’s drift route.

Video 8 Wilson Improve

So Metcalf cooked the press of Oliver for a go route touchdown.

And, when the Seahawks needed a first down to ice the game, Metcalf tricked Terrell with a double move, a “sluggo" route. The corner broke down inside and Metcalf won deep down the sideline.

These are the adjustments based off Metcalf’s technique and style of play observations that Schottenheimer was alluding to.

The frustration of the loss to the Rams was apparent. It didn’t need to lead to a terrible, exhausting, forced narrative from the Thursday Night Football broadcast team of Metcalf being discontent to the point of diva-hood. That said, Metcalf did appear frustrated at So-Fi with his lack of involvement despite being open, catching just two passes for 28 yards.

“I think one area that DK can grow is when he is having those quiet games, to continue to work and communicate,” said Schottenheimer after the disappointing trip to Los Angeles. “Okay, how can I solve this problem? Hey, what are you seeing DK? And that’s all part of growing up and continuing to mature.”

That need for development was of course highlighted after Schottenheimer had praised Metcalf’s ability to identify and communicate, making the offensive coordinator’s statement somewhat contradictory. The key word was “continue;” this is a season-wide objective for the receiver, who was encouraged to speak out more prior to 2020.

“He’s earned the right to speak up more and our guys on offense respect him and he’s earned that right to call guys out and try to bring them along,” stated Schottenheimer back in August. “I told him more than that he’s earned the right, we need his voice in that regard, that’s how much I respect him as a football player and as a worker.”

Metcalf has already overcome an injury that could have ended football for him; you’d be a fool to think he's unable to reach his true peak. He’s already shown exhilarating signs of development, be it his rookie year growth or his second-season blossoming. Metcalf’s on pace for 14 touchdowns, plus nearly 1,400 receiving yards. This mini dip in production and somewhat rocky patch should only be a blip on his road to total stardom.

“Everything that I’ve seen of DK is he’s a special young man that wants to be great,” Schottenheimer said on November 5. We're all witness to that too.