Is Russell Wilson Really a Pocket Passer?

Cian FaheyFeatured ColumnistJuly 13, 2015

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Russell Wilson can't throw from the pocket.

It is a simple statement but a powerful one. It's a statement that has emerged a lot this offseason during the debate over whether the Seattle Seahawks should pay their quarterback. Nobody denies Wilson is a great rushing threat, but opinion of his ability as a passer is divided.

Wilson has consistently been a part of winning teams, but those teams were so stacked that they likely would have been Super Bowl contenders with average quarterback play. Wilson isn't necessarily average, but it's clear Marshawn Lynch's presence and the quality of Seattle's defense allowed him to throw the ball less often than his peers.

Because he was a third-round pick working on a contract suppressed by the rookie wage scale, Wilson's presence as the team's starting quarterback helped the Seahawks load their roster with talent around him. Instead of committing $20 million to Wilson, the franchise used that money to add critical pieces.

The question for the Seahawks is simple. Can they give Wilson a huge deal and still be competitive, or would they be better off waiting so they could franchise-tag him after this season?

How you perceive Wilson's ability to throw from the pocket likely determines your answer to this question. It's easy to replace a very athletic quarterback, but it's not easy to replace a very athletic quarterback who understands the nuances of his position with the throwing ability to highlight them.

With Wilson and most quarterbacks, the question isn't about can or can't. Unequivocally, he can play from the pocket. Whether he can consistently do it is what remains unclear.

Unlike Andrew Luck or Teddy Bridgewater, Wilson didn't immediately enter the NFL and enjoy an expansive role as a passer. He developed a more expansive role over his rookie season. After initially being a constrained passer, Wilson's season culminated in an outstanding second-half display against the Atlanta Falcons in the playoffs.

During the first 14 weeks of his second season, Wilson was outstanding. He was legitimately playing to an MVP level, and he was doing so because of his comfort as a passer.

He closed out the regular season uncomfortably before playing with excessive caution throughout the Super Bowl run. That caution carried over into 2014, as Wilson turned to his running ability more than his passing ability. He ran the ball 22 more times in 2014 than in 2013, but that wasn't the real story of his year.

Even though the Seahawks reached the Super Bowl again, they couldn't win it, and a big reason for that was Wilson's reluctance to release the ball—an issue that plagued his whole season.

2013 proved that Wilson can be a pocket passer. He can be an outstanding pocket passer who stretches the defense both vertically and horizontally. In 2014, he was uncomfortable, uncertain and played with a hesitation that was consistent save for a handful of games. He limited the offense and lived up to the negative perception that has become prevalent around his passing ability.

For the Seahawks, it comes down to whether they believe in the positives Wilson has shown or they fear the prominence of his inconsistency.

 

The Positives

Anticipation and Ball Placement

Wilson has a strong arm. He can comfortably push the ball down either sideline while controlling the velocity and trajectory of his passes. Fitting the ball into tight windows is vitally important for any pocket passer in the NFL because he needs to work the middle of the field.

Attacking the shorter section of the middle of the field is typically easier to do than working between the two safeties farther downfield.

Underneath coverage can be picked apart with just accuracy and arm strength. It takes more control and intelligence to push the ball farther downfield because the ball must travel farther, go over underneath defenders and get between faster secondary players as opposed to slower linebackers.

Quarterbacks who can throw with anticipation are able to push the ball to spots before any defender can read where it is going. Considering how fast defensive backs are in the NFL, often the quarterback still needs to place passes perfectly to have any chance at completing them, even when thrown with anticipation.

This play is a great example of Wilson's ability to pick apart the middle of the field with anticipation and accuracy.

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On this play, the Arizona Cardinals defense is in its nickel package. Both safeties are aligned deep with one cornerback staying to the tight side of the field despite the Seahawks having three receivers to the open side. This alignment suggests the defense is playing a Cover 2 zone defense.

Wilson is in the shotgun, and he should have recognized what the defense is showing. As such, he will work with his tight end and running back rather than his receivers.

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From the moment the ball is snapped, Wilson's eyes are focused on the left side of his offense. Running back Marshawn Lynch initially released toward the sideline, but he is running an angle route that sends him back infield. Tight end Zach Miller is running down the seam.

Because Lynch released outside initially, the cornerback is drawn toward him instead of the linebacker. This is important for how the play develops because it puts the safety in a one-on-one situation with Miller working down the seam.

The safety doesn't know if Miller is going to break toward the pylon or continue working down the middle of the field. He is in a position to cover both routes, but he has to respect both also, forcing him to not cheat inside.

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Wilson releases the ball when Miller is level with the linebacker underneath. Both safeties can see the quarterback as he releases the ball, while Miller is only arching his route back inside to run down the seam. By releasing the ball at this point, Wilson gives himself a chance to place the ball between the defensive backs.

Crucially, Wilson doesn't just try to fit it between the two safeties. He pushes the ball past them so that neither player has an opportunity to make a play on the ball.

Miller is moving forward, so he can comfortably run toward the pass when it is pushed farther downfield. Both safeties need to turn and run, so it's much more difficult for them to track the ball through the air and adjust enough to get underneath it. Wilson's pass was either going to be caught by Miller or fall incomplete.

This kind of throw may seem simple on its face, but the ability to envision how the play will develop, the timing to throw the ball at the perfect moment and the understanding (as well as the execution) of the accuracy are all very difficult aspects to execute.

If you can make this throw comfortably, then you should be able to make every middle-of-the-field throw an NFL offense could ask of you.

 

Pre-Snap Recognition and Coverage Manipulation

The mental side of being an NFL quarterback is extremely taxing. If being a quarterback was simply about how well you threw the ball, the overall standard of play from the position across the league would be dramatically greater than it is.

Instead, players at the position must understand how to react to pressure in the pocket and diagnose coverages, often at the same time.

Diagnosing coverages in the NFL is easy...if you're sitting down with a laptop in front of you that has a pause, play and rewind button. If you're playing quarterback in the pocket on an NFL field, you often have to diagnose plays in an instant after the snap while taking the ball from under center or catching it in shotgun.

Quarterbacks who can read the alignment of the defense before the snap make their post-snap work easier, but it's still not easy. The defense can purposely mask what it is doing to change at the snap, but players you are expecting to win their matchups may simply not win them either.

Furthermore, even when you do get the coverage the pre-snap read promised, you may still need to manipulate the defense into giving you the route you want to throw to.

This play against the Minnesota Vikings is a great example.

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The Vikings have their base personnel on the field, but they have dropped a safety into the slot to cover Percy Harvin and are playing press coverage against the Seahawks' outside receivers. This puts the other safety into a single-high alignment.

Before the snap, Wilson will be expecting the defense to play Cover 1 or maybe Cover 3 based on this look.

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From the moment the play begins, Wilson keeps his eyes trained on his receiver wide to the right. That receiver is running down the sideline against press-man coverage. Meanwhile, the deep-lying safety is watching Wilson's eyes from afar while holding his position.

It's vitally important to note the ball was snapped from the right hash, meaning the receiver to the wide right is on the tighter side of the field.

Wilson can't throw the ball to his first read because that receiver is running down the sideline. Even if he beats the cornerback, the deep-lying safety will read Wilson's eyes and run across the field for a likely interception. Therefore...

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Wilson turns away from his first read and brings his eyes across to the other side of the deep safety. He looks to a spot where Percy Harvin's route is going to take him, a spot where there is space because the Vikings have blitzed with the remaining linebacker spying Wilson at the line of scrimmage.

By moving his eyes to this area of the field, he has turned the tables on the deep safety.

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Instead of letting the safety read where his eyes were going and reacting to him, Wilson uses the safety's attempts to read him to lead the safety away from where he wants to go with the ball. The route down the right sideline was always where he was going with the ball, but he needed to look off the safety first.

He didn't linger too long with his eyes either. He spun his head back toward the right sideline as quickly as he had turned away from it just a moment before.

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Despite accelerating his process in the pocket, Wilson is able to deliver a perfect pass to Doug Baldwin, who had beaten the cornerback's press coverage down the right sideline. This huge gain came about because of Wilson's mental acumen and patience more than anything else.

This is the kind of play that deserves great commendation in terms of a pocket passer. It's the kind of play Peyton Manning would get huge praise for, as he commands his offense perfectly.

In 2013, Wilson made these kinds of plays with much greater regularity than in 2014. Whether he showed enough consistency in that area is down to personal preference within each person's evaluation, but it's clear he understands how to read and manipulate coverages.

Even during 2014, there were still signs Wilson was comfortably able to diagnose coverages and find the right openings all over the field. However, too often he turned those openings down by hesitating before beginning his throwing motion. That led to more scrambling and panicking.

While that's a negative, it's at least something that should be more easily fixed than working with a quarterback who doesn't actually have the ability to get to that point in the play.

 

Process in the Pocket

No matter who you are, if you play quarterback in the NFL and want to be successful, you're going to have to make plays against pressure.

This requires a number of different attributes, the most obvious of which is simply being resolute enough to stand strong in the pocket and take a hit. It sounds cliche, but the truth is fear can ruin the effectiveness of quarterbacks as quickly as anything else.

If you're not willing to take a hit, your mechanics and balance get thrown off. Without your mechanics and balance, you can't throw the ball as hard or control your accuracy. If you're inaccurate and throwing passes up for grabs, your offense won't be close to efficient.

Furthermore, the ability to hasten your process without becoming sloppy is just as important against pressure. Many quarterbacks in the NFL, Zach Mettenberger being the most prominent example, have very slow processes that invite pressure and lead to sloppiness.

A fast release, quick feet and the mental sharpness to feel pressure allow you to negate it as often as you have to absorb it.

On this play against the Atlanta Falcons, Wilson shows off his willingness to take a hit and his ability to hasten his process in the pocket.

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It's 3rd-and-6, so unsurprisingly the defense blitzes. It does so from an amoeba front that is designed to make it tougher for the quarterback to see where the blitz is coming from. The amoeba front simply has one or two defenders with their hands on the ground while the others walk around.

The defenders have fluid positions rather than set ones that come in a standard 3-4, 4-3 or 2-4, 4-2 front.

Wilson needs to diagnose this blitz at the snap by finding the linebacker or linebackers who drop into coverage—that is presuming any do. That will determine where he goes with the football. To make everything tougher for him, the formation of the defense appears to affect his center.

Compounding the conundrum that is facing him already, Wilson must also locate a bad snap from his center. The ball is too low and to the wide right. He comfortably adjusts to it and only takes his eyes away from the defensive front for a split second.

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If all of the front had blitzed, then Wilson could have thrown a quick pass to Jermaine Kearse on a slant over the middle of the field. Because one linebacker dropped, the defense was able to account for Kearse and force Wilson to throw the ball outside.

Because of the route combinations outside, Wilson has to hold on to the ball to give them time to develop. This is tough to do with a free rusher coming through the middle.

The Seahawks offensive line, as it often does, failed to pick up all of the pass-rushers. Fortunately, the one free rusher didn't have a completely clean route to the quarterback, as he had to angle around a teammate on his way to the pocket. This gave Wilson just enough time to do what he needed.

As the second part of the above image shows, the ball is gone by the time Wilson absorbs the big hit from the defender, while the route combinations outside have just reached a point where Wilson could throw the ball.

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Despite the disruption and having to speed up his release, Wilson's pass was perfect. He created a big play in a situation where there were many pitfalls that could have captured him—pitfalls that were not of his own making.

Having the composure to speed up your process without becoming less effective is a major part of what allows a player to elevate his teammates.

When analysts and fans vaguely talk about quarterbacks making their teammates better or dragging their teams to victories, what they may or may not understand is how that works. There are limits to what a quarterback can compensate for, but it essentially boils down to throwing receivers open and covering for poor play in pass protection.

Compensating for poor pass protection is primarily about how fast your process in the pocket can be and how much control you can show while altering the speed you act at.

 

Diagnosing Blitzes

One of Wilson's most impressive traits is his ability to instantly diagnose blitzes at the snap. He may be most well-known for his outstanding athleticism, but some of his most impressive plays have come when he was able to read the alignment of the opposition and adjust his offense to instantly find the weak spot in coverage.

Against the Green Bay Packers in last year's NFC Championship Game, the game-winning touchdown pass was the result of Wilson recognizing the coverage the defense was playing based on pre-snap motion and alignment.

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Wilson initially surveys the defense as he approaches his center. Before the offense is set, he turns to his fullback and gestures before pointing toward the left sideline. The fullback promptly runs outside of the numbers before establishing himself in the stance of a wide receiver.

The defense follows the fullback with a safety.

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At this point of the play, it was clear the Packers were selling out to stop the run with no deep safety in position to play coverage. They were almost certainly in man coverage outside with no help deep. Wilson audibled, as you can see in the above image, to take advantage of this coverage.

In the quarterback's own words, per Danny Kelly of SB Nation:

Just the film study. They had brought everybody up in the box, cover zero, and I just wanted to give Jermaine Kearse a chance to go win the game and he always finds a way to do that somehow. I ... audibled the play, checked the play, and sure enough, we were able to hit Jermaine Kearse for the touchdown.

Kearse was able to score that touchdown by getting inside position against Tramon Williams down the seam. Although Kearse got positioning behind Williams, he didn't create any real separation. This meant Wilson had to drop the ball perfectly over his shoulder for the game-winning score.

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This was an impressive throw, especially considering how poorly he had played throughout the first four quarters of this game.

Wilson didn't hold the ball; instead he quickly got to the top of his drop and delivered the ball instantly. The Packers had sent six defenders after the quarterback, so the Seahawks were able to account for each rusher in pass protection.

In truth, it was a poorly designed play from the Packers but still one that Wilson needed to diagnose and adjust to before the center snapped the ball.

Just one week prior to this play, Wilson made a similar adjustment for a touchdown in the first quarter of the divisional-round meeting with the Carolina Panthers. On this occasion the defense did a better job of masking its intentions before the snap.

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The first thing Wilson does is motion Marshawn Lynch from the backfield into a wide-right position. When Luke Kuechly follows him, the defense is showing man coverage. That suggestion is backed up by the right-side safety lining up directly behind the slot cornerback.

This suggests the slot cornerback is going to blitz and that the safety is going to pick up the slot cornerback in man coverage.

Wilson seemingly hadn't noticed that at this point of the play because he was setting his offensive line's protection. As the Panthers lined up two defenders over his right tackle, Wilson appeared to tell his tight end who was aligned in the slot to come in and act as an extra blocker once the ball was snapped.

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Thanks to fortunate timing from the broadcast cameras, we were able to view the exchange between Wilson and Baldwin. Baldwin was lined up in the slot and initially gesturing with his hands to the deep safety. Wilson responded with the above motion.

Based on what happened next, the duo had clearly been on the same page and understood what the defense was going to do.

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Wilson was forced to deal with a bad snap, adjusting low to pull the ball up while stepping back in his drop. Even though he began the play in the shotgun, Wilson dropped at the snap in order to buy time against the incoming blitz.

He needed this time because the route he and Baldwin agreed upon was a double move against the safety in space.

This is an aggressive, brave call because the route needs time to develop. It was a calculated risk, though, as the Seahawks were comfortably in field-goal range, and the potential result of the play was an easy touchdown. Because it was 3rd-and-9, a quick completion underneath likely wouldn't have done anything either way.

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Even while letting the ball go before Baldwin had even made his initial plant to sell the fake for the double move, Wilson was able to loft the ball over the safety so it landed comfortably in the receiver's hands. His touch and anticipation highlighted his mental preparation before the snap.

Baldwin is often the player Wilson looks to in these types of situations. The receiver runs precise routes and is one of the more intelligent players in the whole league when it comes to adjusting on the fly.

Blitzing Wilson is generally a bad idea. He's one of the few players in the NFL who can cut open a coverage with his mind and elude multiple rushers in space with his athleticism. He elevates his teammates more often than hinders them in these situations.

 

The Negatives

Wilson's negatives aren't as spread out as his positives. He runs out of too many clean pockets, but that is an affliction that affects a large number of athletic quarterbacks because they are capable of making big plays with their feet downfield.

Therefore, while it's a negative because it's not working to the design of the play, it can also be a positive when he creates as an individual in space.

More significant are Wilson's flaws seeing the field and pulling the trigger on throws downfield. It was less of an issue early in 2013 but became a major problem in 2014. It was a constant issue throughout the year, and it had a significant effect on the team's performance in the Super Bowl.

Wilson left a number of important plays on the field against the New England Patriots.

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This play occurred late in the first quarter and didn't happen within the confines of the pocket. Instead, it was a designed rollout play with a throwback to Ricardo Lockette incorporated into its structure. Lockette initially lined up in the slot to the right but ran behind the line of scrimmage at the snap.

He went unnoticed by the Patriots defense, as Dont'a Hightower blew his coverage. Wilson set his feet and looked back to find Lockette wide open in space but turned down the throw to scramble instead.

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On this play, Wilson is forced to hold the ball in the pocket. He gets good pass protection, so he can comfortably survey the coverage downfield to find an open receiver. Doug Baldwin is running a crossing route against Darrelle Revis from the right side.

Baldwin comes wide open with a crisp route. Wilson appears to be staring right at him, but he never begins his throwing motion. Instead he holds the ball too long, inviting the pocket to collapse in on him.

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The Patriots weren't aggressively going after Wilson. Having noticed his hesitation in previous games, they decided to allow him time to survey the field in the pocket while focusing on containing his rushing ability. On this play, Wilson has a completely clean pocket that he turns and runs out of.

Had he stayed in the pocket and worked to the design of the play, he would have noticed Chris Matthews running open down the right sideline.

Matthews was in behind the cornerback. With his size (6'5", 218 lbs) and ball skills, he could have had a relatively easy catch for a big gain if Wilson threw an accurate pass his way. The deep safety was on the opposite hash mark, so he wouldn't have been able to cut off the ball.

When Wilson missed Baldwin working on the crossing route against Revis earlier in the game, it was his hesitation that took the pass away. The same situation cropped up again later, but this time something else caused Wilson to miss the opportunity.

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Baldwin is open; Wilson is looking for him, but he can't see him. He can't see him because the offensive linemen and defensive linemen in front of him are much taller than he is. Wilson doesn't throw much to the middle of the field, and his height (5'11") likely plays a big role in that.

He doesn't help himself by crouching at times and dropping his eyes against pressure too often. Ideally, Wilson would learn to mimic Drew Brees in the pocket.

Brees essentially plays the game on his toes while tilting his neck to raise his eye level while he moves in the pocket. It's unrealistic to expect Wilson to play this way because it's a very difficult thing to do. But his playing style means he wants to be in a more comfortable position to use his athleticism.

It's easy to cherry-pick missed throws from quarterbacks, as every single player in the league ultimately misses some. However, it'd be disingenuous to fall behind that veil to excuse Wilson.

Wilson missed an abnormal number of opportunities downfield because of the way he played both inside and outside of the pocket last season. He also created a huge number of plays with his feet by playing that way, but the more efficient and effective playing style is the one he adopted a season before.


At 26 years of age, entering his fourth season in the NFL, Wilson has his issues to correct. Those issues are primarily consistency-based, though. He has done as much as anyone during the early stages of his career to suggest he will be an accomplished pocket passer moving forward.

Whether Wilson should be classified as a pocket passer is purely down to personal preference. However, the consistency with which the label is used is important.

Labeling a player such as Andy Dalton or Nick Foles as a pocket passer and saying Wilson isn't one is completely unfair. If you're not considering Wilson a pocket passer, it should be because you carry high standards for the distinction, not because you want to penalize him for being able to run the ball as well.

The Seahawks are going to pay Wilson eventually. They have to. He's simply too good of an all-around player to let go in a league that is starving for his kind of quality at the position.

It's obviously going to be tougher to construct a Super Bowl roster paying Wilson $20 million instead of $900,000, but most teams in the league with quality quarterback play have to build that way. Winning the Super Bowl isn't easy, and these are the types of moves a team must make if it wants to sustain success.

No matter how tough it will be to build that kind of roster with a more expensive quarterback, it's eternally more difficult to find even a competent starting quarterback in the third round of the draft.

Or even in the first round as of late.