Russell Wilson entered the 2012 draft as a ready-made pro quarterback with a first-round arm, legs and brain, but with one trait that coaches and executives couldn't overlook: his 5'11" height. The NFL is a pocket-passing league, and a pocket passer must be able to see over the line, which is why only four sub-6-foot QBs since 1960 have become full-time starters. Since falling all the way to the third round of that draft, Wilson has won an NFL-record 24 games in his first two seasons. The popular narrative—that he's accomplished this on the strength of his character, leadership and hard work—is uplifting. It's also misleading. Wilson has blossomed into a superstar because Seattle has molded its offense around his strengths, most notably his mobility.
In November 2012, Seattle ramped up the amount of read-option in its playbook, transforming a solid rushing attack into arguably the NFL's best. Wilson's quickness, vision and patience blend perfectly with the pounding of Marshawn Lynch behind a zone-blocking front line. But Wilson's mobility as a rusher did not propel this offense to 26.1 points per game; his mobility as a passer did. No QB operates better on the move. He has an uncanny ability to square his upper body and uncork pinpoint lasers or well-timed floaters while going to his right or his left. To take advantage of this, coordinator Darrell Bevell has seasoned his West Coast passing attack with designed movements—rollouts, bootlegs and zone-read play-action—that instead of forcing Wilson to see over his line, allow him to see around it.
Designed movements are particularly tough to defend. They offset most defensive pressure concepts, which aim to reach a passer at the top of his drop. (This accounts for the Seahawks' having survived 19 missed games by four starting linemen.) They also distort spacing against a zone D—and because opponents need to keep eyes on Wilson, a skilled scrambler, Seattle faces plenty of zone. Most designed movements start with the same blocking structure as a running play, which augments the deception of play-action. Additionally, a moving pocket prolongs a play, giving receivers more time to work free. This explains how Seattle has thrived with shifty but unimposing catch-and-run wideouts Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin in place of injured stars Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice.
None of which is to say that Seattle's passing game hinges exclusively on designed movement; some of Wilson's best work comes from improvisation. But unlike many young mobile QBs, Wilson doesn't immediately look to flee the pocket as he moves. He's cultivated the awareness, footwork and mechanics to create new passing windows by shifting and resetting within the pocket, much in the way that 6-foot Drew Brees does. When the rush is overwhelming, Wilson differentiates himself in that he does not often assume a runner's mentality—he keeps his eyes downfield and maintains an aerial threat. When he does run, he's productive and safe. Thirty-one of his 96 scrambles in 2013 moved the chains (only Cam Newton had more), and most of them ended with a slide or a step out-of-bounds.
January 13, 2014
Wilson's big plays can look magical, but they're fine-tuned pieces of design and execution. And they're a major reason—along with a stingy press-man, inside-zone hybrid defense and overwhelming home field advantage—that the Seahawks are favored to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
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