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Film Review: Stopping Russell Wilson in the red zone and other notes

This matchup has quite a bit of “X-Factors”

Seattle Seahawks v Cleveland Browns Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Seattle is living up the the reputation it holds as the rainiest city in America. By the time the ball is kicked off at 4:25 p.m. EST, Seattle will have seen seven straight days of precipitation. Rain will certainly impact the game, but the tear drops Russell Wilson has been dropping will determine a winner and loser.

Wilson is leading the NFL in “money throws” meaning fitting the ball in a tight window over 30 yards downfield.

Teams often prefer to run the ball in inclement weather, which one would think benefits Baltimore, who boasts the best rushing attack in the NFL. To (loosely) quote Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, “Oh, you think the rain is your ally, but you merely adopted the dark. Russell Wilson was born in it, molded by it. He didn’t see the light until I was already a veteran; by then, it was nothing to him but blinding! The shadows betray you, because they belong to me. I will show you where I have made my home, in Seattle, whilst preparing to bring justice. Then, Russ will break you. Your precious ground game, gratefully accepted. We will need it. Ah yes, I was wondering what would break first. Your spirit, or your rushing attack.”

The Seahawks are used to it. The Ravens have seen Joe Flacco’s big arm rip through rain and snow for years, as he’s one of the best ‘mudders’ in the league. Baltimore has only played one game in such conditions since Lamar Jackson took over in 2018, a win at home against the meddling Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Rain takes the adhesion off of gloves, makes the ball slick, leads to more turnovers and generally pushes teams run the ball more than they typically do. Defenders often struggle to find footing, while offensive linemen enjoy attacking when defenders can’t get their feet under them. On turf, which the Seahawks maintain at CenturyLink Field, the field conditions aren’t quite as big of a factor. Regardless, these teams don’t need anyone to tell them to run the football.

The Ravens and Seahawks run the ball at the second and third highest frequency in the NFL through six weeks. The Ravens average 37.2 carries per game, while the Seahawks tote the rock 32 times per game. However, the Ravens rushing attack blows Seattle’s out of the water in every measure of efficiency.

Yards per carry

  • Ravens: 5.5 (ranks 1st, would be the highest in NFL history over 16 games)
  • Seahawks: 4.1 (ranks 17th)

Rushes for a first down

  • Ravens: 71, ranks 1st (31.8% of rushes for a first down, ranks 1st)
  • Seahawks: 44, ranks 7th (22.9% of rushes for a first down, ranks 14th)

Rushing DVOA

  • Ravens: 19.7%, ranks 1st
  • Seahawks: -6.0 %, ranks 19th

In summary, the Ravens are the best rushing team in the NFL. They run the ball for more yards per carry first downs, with the best efficiency in the league. The Seahawks run the ball quite frequently, but not as successfully as many would think.

Additionally, Seahawks emerging tight end Will Dissly has been put on the injured reserve, ending his season. Dissly has the third highest DVOA among tight ends. He was a fixture in the Seattle offense in both the running and passing game, as the Seahawks love to trot out heavier personnel.

Dissly has received the highest number of red zone targets and second-highest number of targets on the Seahawks to this point. His loss is certainly a huge blow, especially considering the Seahawks parted ways with backup tight end Nick Vannett by trading him to the Steelers. The loss of Dissly could lead to the Seahawks throwing the ball more than usual, which isn’t good news . . .

The Ravens defense has been extremely stout against the run in 2019. Aside from Nick Chubb gashing the Ravens (a game that led to the Ravens benching Kenny Young and acquiring Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort, while also considering Brandon Williams was inactive) their defense has been stout against the run. They’ve been much more suspect against the pass, which has led them to acquire two time All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters.

I won’t get too deep into the addition of Peters, however you can read my entire thesis on what his addition brings here. Basically, Peters will help the Ravens cover underneath on the side of the field Marlon Humphrey isn’t on. Teams will be forced to throw the ball over the middle of the field and deep more often, where Earl Thomas has been avoided like the plague. Thomas will get his chance to ball-hawk more, as teams must now target the Ravens new linebackers in coverage.

However, if the Ravens defensive front shuts down the Seahawks run game effectively, then Russell Wilson will take to the air. Seattle’s passing attack ranks first in DVOA and is so effective that their offense as a whole ranks third, despite their ground game merely ranking 19th.

Russell Wilson’s deep passing against the Ravens secondary will be a strength on strength matchup. Wilson is averaging 9.5 intended air yards/attempt, which ranks sixth in the NFL. That means he pushes the ball downfield. His efficiency mixed with his aggressiveness has led to Wilson averaging the highest yards/attempt in the league at 9.0.

Wilson has protected the ball at all costs, only throwing one “interceptable” pass this year, the fewest of any passer in the league. He hasn’t turned the ball over yet, while attacking deep and also scrambling 18 times, which is only one less than Lamar Jackson (19).

Wilson’s one weak point this season has been completion percentage in the red zone. Wilson is only completing 45.7% of passes in the red zone, which is 37th among quarterbacks with 20+ passing attempts. This is especially strange considering that the Seahawks have thrown eight screens in the red zone, the most of any team in the NFL.

Wilson’s touchdown passes have been from the following distances:

  • 44 yards to Lockett
  • 14 yards to Dissly
  • 12 yards to Dissly
  • 28 yards to Metcalf
  • 8 yards to Lockett
  • 4 yards to Dissly
  • 9 yards to Dissly
  • 13 yards to Lockett
  • 40 yards to Metcalf
  • 10 yards to Moore
  • 5 yards to Carson
  • 17 yards to Brown
  • 6 yards to Brown

Wilson has only thrown three touchdown passes from outside of the red zone, which is quite confusing. Wilson has attempted 35 passes in the red zone and thrown 11 touchdowns from the same distance. Considering his 45.7% completion rate in the red zone, that means that Wilson has completed 16 passes inside the 20. Only five completions haven’t resulted in a score.

Dissly has caught four of those eleven touchdowns, which is another reason why his injury is a major blow for the ‘Hawks.

Let’s take a look at how Wilson has scored inside the 20.

The Seahawks offense as a whole is . . . basic. Their route combinations are traditional, their run game is classic. You can probably find most of their plays aside from their RPO or read options in Madden 08. That goes to show that fundamentals and execution can make anything happen in the sport of football.

Translation: the Seahawks are well-coached and execute at a high level consistently. Wilson’s decision-making is reminiscent of Neo after he realized he was “The One.” Wilson is always just athletic enough to buy just enough time to put the ball just where it needs to be. It feels like he’s getting lucky, but getting lucky over, and over, and over again. If you get lucky every time, it just means you’re that damn good.

The Seahawks use smash concepts regularly, as well as other “high low” concepts. In addition they deploy stick concepts, screens, backside slants and other classic route combinations. It’s . . . an old school passing game, but cooked to perfection.

The best recipe to stifle Wilson in the red zone is to play outside-in. Have corners play outside leverage and direct traffic towards Earl Thomas, Chuck Clark and Brandon Carr. If defenders get caught peeking in the backfield at Wilson after the play breaks down, the Seahawks receivers, particularly Tyler Lockett, will break free across the grain to find space and inevitably score. It’s a catch-22 because Wilson will beat you with his legs, however, that’s the preferable alternative in this situation. It’s also one that the Ravens are quite familiar with.

The Ravens defense might have a leg up on about 29 of the 31 other teams in the league when it comes to defending Wilson. That leg is named Lamar Jackson. Only a handful of quarterbacks can put pressure on a defense the way that Jackson, Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and a handful of others can. Their spatial awareness, mobility and general playmaking ability cause defenses to have to defend two, sometimes three, separate plays.

That sword is dual-edged, as the Seahawks defense is accustomed to trying their best to contain Fran Tarkenton reincarnated throughout the offseason. Wilson can truly make the most unlikely plays look like the norm rather than the outlier. Although, the Bengals, Steelers and Cardinals were all able to sack Wilson four times, and the Browns got to Wilson three times. In their only loss of 2019 against the Saints, Wilson wasn’t sacked.

Over Wilson’s past 19 home games (three seasons), he’s been held under a 100 passer rating only six times. The Seahawks went 4-2 in those games, strangely enough. Three of those games were against divisional opponents, with one coming against the Vikings in 2018, who were among the best defensive groups in football.

That’s why shutting Wilson down in the red zone is so important. If the Ravens are able to keep the Seahawks out of the end zone, they’ll force the opposing offense to start pushing and forcing the ball, which could finally cause Russell Wilson to turn the ball over. The Seahawks have only scored three times from outside the red zone, which is interesting considering how effective Wilson has been as a deep passer.

In 2018, Wilson completed 31 of 61 deep passes, and was accurate on 59% of those throws, the second highest mark in the NFL. He’s attempted 36 throws over 20 yards in 2019, which would equate to 96 such throws over 16 games. That would’ve led the NFL by 15 attempts last year, which is frightening.

Luckily, the Ravens are extremely solid on the back end with the addition of Marcus Peters. Teams have only attempted 15 deep passes on the Ravens, excluding the Dolphins blowout in Week 1. Baker Mayfield didn’t attempt a single pass over 20 yards downfield. Andy Dalton only attempted one such throw.

This matchup will truly be strength-on-strength, as will the Ravens offensive line against the Seahawks defensive front.

The Seahawks defensive line will see the return of Jarran Reed, who was one of the most disruptive interior defensive lineman in football in 2018. Reed exploded in his sophomore campaign to net 10.5 sacks and made 51 total stops. Reed is accompanied by Poona Ford and Quinton Jefferson, who rank 20th and 4th against the run among interior defenders, respectively, according to PFF. Pair that with Jadeveon Clowney, K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner, and you’re looking at eight of the best run stuffers in football.

The Ravens offensive line has the benefit of Marshal Yanda, Ronnie Stanley and Matt Skura, who are all ranked at the top-10 in their respective positions as offensive lineman. Having Nick Boyle and Mark Andrews, will make this game a battle of attrition up front. Andrews and Boyle are two of PFF’s top rated run-blocking tight ends (Andrews is actually graded above Boyle) and deservedly so. The two have been making life easier on the big uglies to their inside, and making life miserable on second level defenders all year. Nick Boyle has 14 cut blocks on the year by my estimation, which have cleared 18-wheeler sized lanes for Lamar Jackson and company to roll through.

Bradley Bozeman had his poorest performance of the year last week, mainly due to three pre snap penalties and a suspect block in the back call, although he literally did block someone in the back.

If there is any one player I could pick to make life difficult on Lamar Jackson and the option offense, it is Jadeveon Clowney. His power, agility and speed are a nightmare, and play designs shouldn’t choose Clowney as the unblocked defender in such situations. He’s one of a handful of humans (possibly an alien) who can play both Lamar Jackson and Mark Ingram on a read option. The Ravens would be wise to leave other defenders unblocked and put an extra hat on the former first-overall pick.

Bobby Wagner is also among the smartest linebackers in football, right on par with Luke Keuchley. The Ravens bells and whistles shouldn’t be as effective against Wagner and Wright as they have been against the poor linebacking units the Ravens have faced recently. Although, opposing tight ends have been gashing the Seahawks in the passing game of late. The Ravens can utilize RPO passing designs to move Wagner and Wright off their spot, then running deep over routes behind them.

I’ve had the feeling that Greg Roman has been saving some of the playbook for the Ravens more difficult stretch, which has arrived. For the amount of motions, options and sweep ability, there haven’t been many screens, reverses, double moves or any trickery of the sort. For how much hesitation Lamar Jackson causes from linebackers and safeties, aggressive screens and misdirections can torch the opposition.

Slants and screens reared their heads a bit more last week, which is a welcome sight. A well executed misdirection “trick play” is exactly what the doctor usually orders to slay a dragon on the road. If they’re in the playbook, Sunday is the time to use them.

It's time for Greg Roman to unleash whatever monsters he’s been hiding under the bed against a team he’s quite familiar with. Roman and Pete Carroll’s Seahawks battled quite a few times during Roman’s stint as the 49ers offensive play caller under Jim Harbaugh.

While Roman has squared off against the Seahawks several times before, this will be Earl Thomas’ first time playing the team that drafted him. There are quite a bit of storylines in this matchup, and the two teams will present interesting challenges to one another in regards to X’s and O’s.

Buckle up, it's going to be a good one.