Breaking Down Russell Wilson's Struggles During the NFC Championship Game

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Breaking Down Russell Wilson's Struggles During the NFC Championship Game
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Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson couldn't have expected a better start to his career.

After two seasons, Wilson has established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He gradually improved during his rookie season before reaching previously unforeseen heights early in his second season. Now, with his team readying for its second ever Super Bowl appearance, Wilson's play comes into even greater focus.

Unfortunately for the former third-round draft pick, he isn't playing his best football right now.

He made some key plays against the New Orleans Saints and the San Francisco 49ers during the playoffs, but those plays have been too few, and mistakes have been too frequent. Wilson hasn't been a liability by any means, but he also hasn't imposed his will on games like did earlier in the season.

This has been an issue since Week 14 of the regular season.

It must be noted that Wilson has played some very impressive defenses since that point, but those excuses don't hold up when watching game film. Wilson often isn't being forced into bad decisions, and his execution isn't simply being erased by better play from the defense.

Up until Week 14, there was very little any defense could do to stop Wilson.

Football Outsiders

The above chart highlights how accurate Wilson was during the first 13 games of the regular season. His precision on underneath throws and his ability to consistently find receivers down both sidelines were phenomenal.

More importantly, Wilson was playing the game to a degree that few others could because of his combination of mental and physical traits. He was diagnosing defensive plays before or at the snap. He was quickly getting rid of the ball and making the right decision over and over again.

This decisiveness really stood out. Rarely does someone so young look so comfortable handling such a stressful, complex role.

Despite what many detractors would say early on, Wilson wasn't simply relying on Marshawn Lynch for offensive success. Much of what he was doing wasn't based off the running game. He was making difficult throws from difficult positions, escaping pressure and keeping his eyes downfield at all times.

Right around Week 14, that stopped. Right around Week 14, the hesitancy in Wilson's game became apparent.

Wilson began to hurry at times when he needed to show patience and show patience at times when he needed to hurry. He started missing receivers and reacting poorly to pressure. Maybe it was the toll on his body from all of the hits he had taken earlier in the season. Maybe it was simply his own inconsistency. Maybe the pressure of being what he is finally began to take its toll.

Either way, Wilson has shown enough resiliency to still be a good quarterback, even if he is not playing like a great one. Against the 49ers, we still saw flashes of the player who dominated games in the middle section of the season, but it'd be doing him a disservice if we ignored his poor plays and patronized him as just another young quarterback.

On the very first play of the NFC Championship Game, Wilson gave us a great example of how his mental reaction time has slowed down.

NFL.com

The Seahawks run a bootleg play-action to the right side. San Francisco's Aldon Smith (No. 99) doesn't bite hard on the play fake, so he is in position to contain Wilson as the QB turns away with the ball. Smith's attention is initially occupied by tight end Zach Miller, though.

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As you would expect from Wilson, he keeps his eyes downfield as he moves across the field, while squaring his feet and shoulders to the line of scrimmage. He is holding the ball in a position that allows him to quickly let it go. Meanwhile, Smith begins to detach himself from Miller underneath and moves towards the quarterback.

NFL.com

Wilson hesitates reading the coverage and ultimately looks to scramble instead of finding the wide-open Miller underneath with a simple throw. To compound his error, he holds the ball in one hand away from his body. This allows Smith to knock it free without even making a concerted effort to do so.

The Seahawks defense held the 49ers to just a field goal, so Wilson's fumble wasn't a major issue.

However, he didn't appear to get himself settled after it. On the following drive he completed a pass underneath to the sideline, but two short run plays led to a punt. That preceded a throw later in the first quarter that should have been intercepted by 49ers safety Eric Reid.

NFL.com

It's 3rd-and-6, so the Seahawks come out in the shotgun with four receivers on the field. The 49ers aren't masking their intentions, with both inside linebackers deep off the line of scrimmage and three of their defenders on the line of scrimmage standing up.

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Wilson surveys the field from a clean pocket at the top of his drop. It initially appears that he leaves the pocket too quickly, but the end-zone camera angle showed that no receiver was open or about to come open. This means it was a good decision for him to step up in the pocket, to be ready either to scramble or draw coverage away from a receiver.

NFL.com

To this point in the play, Wilson has made all the right moves. Now, however, he decides to throw the ball to a receiver who is well covered, even though he had a good opportunity for a first down if he scrambled.

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Doug Baldwin makes the reception for a 22-yard gain, but only because Reid mistimes his jump and can't bring the football down as it goes through his hands.

Not only did Wilson make a bad decision here, he also underthrew the pass. He didn't really give his receiver a chance to make the reception; he got lucky because the defensive back made a bad play.

This isn't the type of play that a quarterback with confidence makes.

Earlier this season, Wilson would have escaped down the sideline for the easy first down or at least thrown a better pass to his intended receiver. This mistake from the 49ers appeared to give the Seahawks offense some needed energy, though.

Wilson threw another slightly inaccurate pass that led tight end Luke Willson into contact down the middle of the field, but a penalty on Donte Whitner moved them to midfield. The young quarterback completed two passes to running backs for good gains, but a penalty put them at 3rd-and-9.

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The offense set up early in the play clock, but this only worked in the defense's favor. Initially the 49ers showed an overload blitz to the right side of the Seahawks offensive line, but as Wilson called out adjustments, the 49ers moved back to a more balanced alignment.

NFL.com

At the snap, Wilson looked directly at his receiver to the right side, but that receiver was only running a curl route that would have had no chance of getting a first down. While he was doing that, Wilson was failing to account for the fact that the 49ers had blitzed from the other side of the field.

NFL.com

This is something Carlos Rogers, the slot cornerback, hinted at before the snap. Therefore, Wilson could have picked it up. Because Wilson held the ball and the protection was adjusted to pick up a blitz to the wrong side, NaVorro Bowman was able to take the quarterback down for an easy sack.

Wilson did rebound to make some plays after that, but there was another notable play in the fourth quarter when the Seahawks were trying to close out the game.

Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll decided to go for it on 4th-and-1 at the 49ers' 1-yard line. The 49ers defended the play well, getting penetration on a run up the middle by Lynch, but the 49ers nearly came away with a touchdown themselves because Wilson failed to execute the exchange properly.

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Instead of planting the ball into Lynch's midsection, Wilson put it too high and slid it off the top of the running back's chest. This is a simple task for a quarterback, but something that becomes more problematic when things aren't going your way.

Wilson, like Andrew Luck, isn't just another quarterback. He appears to be very special.

Just like his counterpart in Indianapolis, he is going to have his bad stretches, especially at this stage of his career. The fact that the Seahawks have reached the Super Bowl while enduring one of those bad stretches speaks to the quality of Wilson individually and the quality of the Seahawks as a team.

However, the odds definitely won't be in Seattle's favor if he repeats this kind of performance in the Super Bowl.

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