Sports Football

NFL PLAYOFFS

Greg Cosell on how Russell Wilson has improved over past year

John Kryk

By John Kryk, Toronto Sun

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson runs the ball against the Panthers defence during second half NFC playoff action in Seattle on Jan. 10, 2015. (Steven Bisig/USA TODAY Sports)

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson runs the ball against the Panthers defence during second half NFC playoff action in Seattle on Jan. 10, 2015. (Steven Bisig/USA TODAY Sports)

SEATTLE - 

A year ago this week, in this city, Russell Wilson prepared to quarterback his Seahawks in his first NFC championship game.

As he'll do on Sunday in his second, at CenturyLink Field against the Green Bay Packers (3:05 p.m. EST, CTV/FOX).

Wilson is an improved quarterback since mid-January a year ago -- much improved, even if not all of his 2014 statistics bear that out.

The big difference is that last year, as the Seahawks prepped to battle their nemesis from down the Pacific Coast, the San Francisco 49ers, Wilson had been struggling. He'd hit a wall near the end of the 2013 NFL season, his second as a pro, and that carried into the playoffs.

Through Week 13 in 2013 he'd completed 65% of his throws for 219 yards a game, a solid 22-to-6 TD-to-interception ratio and a shiny 108.0 passer rating. In the five games following, those numbers plummeted to 57%, 158 yards a game, a 4-to-3 TD-to-INT ratio and a subpar 77.4 passer rating.

In those five games Wilson converted just 29% of Seattle's third downs -- worse than the worst offence in the league in that category over the entire season, Jacksonville at 31%.

And so exactly one year ago, we turned to one of the most astute NFL analysts in the business, Greg Cosell of NFL Films, for an explanation. He's the senior producer of ESPN's informative X's-and-O's program, NFL Matchup.

Cosell indeed noticed a decided downturn in Wilson's play.

"The last five weeks he has become tentative in the pocket," Cosell told me the day before Seattle played San Fran. "He's not turning it loose when there are throws that are there. He has been less accurate ... He's missing throws.

"He has been quicker to abandon the pocket, too. And I don't know the reason."

The next day, Wilson snapped out of his funk after halftime. With 13:44 left in the game, and the Niners up 17-13, Wilson threw probably the best pass of his career, and from the pocket -- a perfect, gutsy, 35-yard touchdown strike on a vertical to Jermaine Kearse in the 49ers end zone on fourth-and-seven, which put the Seahawks up for good in an eventual 23-17 win.

Wilson then played magnificently as the Seahawks destroyed the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, 43-8.

While Wilson's passer rating dropped this past season compared to his first two (from 100.0 and 101.2, to 95.0) as did his TD passes (from 26 and 26, to 20), his completion percentage (63.4%), passing yards (3,475) and attempts (452) all rose, while his interceptions dropped again (from 10 and nine, to seven).

He's better.

Why?

On Saturday we turned again, one year later, to Cosell for his insights on the 5-foot-10¾ Wilson.

"I think he improved this year as the season progressed in getting rid of the ball quicker," Cosell said in a phone interview. "The thing about Russell Wilson, he can't make plays in the pocket late in the down, because when the bodies start to get around him, he can't see (over them).

"So he has to make the large majority of his plays from the pocket within the timing and rhythm of the initial route concept. And I thought he's been doing a much better job of that as the season has progressed -- which will make him a better quarterback, because he'll end up running less."

Indeed, whereas Wilson in his late-season funk a year ago was sliding "much more" into what Cosell calls "random" quarterbacking, rather than "structured" quarterbacking -- the former being an especially unworthy trait in Cosell's eyes -- the Virginia native has reversed the trend over the past 12 months.

"He's not a random player," Cosell said on Saturday. "And I think that's a critical part. Even though he makes a lot of spontaneous plays, he's not really a random player in a strict sense."

For a young quarterback who embraces randomness and eschews structure, see Manziel, Johnny.

This isn't to say that Wilson does not still leave available throws on the field. He does, Cosell said. The nephew of the late, legendary ABC broadcaster Howard Cosell just cannot tell from film whether it is part of Seattle's game-planning.

"Throughout the season there have been numerous times when Wilson didn't pull the trigger on throws to open receivers on designed plays, and at times compensated for that by running.

"The one thing I don't know, and we always talk about this at the office, is I don't know how he's coached. So if they call a certain play, for instance, and it's open but he doesn't throw it then runs for 20 yards, do they say to him, 'Great job!' or do they say to him, 'You've got to throw that ball.' I can't answer that part of it."

Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll can.

"We encourage him to scramble -- we have no hesitation at all," Carroll said on Friday. "He's well equipped to do everything that we ask him to do. He can get in the pocket and hang there. If he finds his receivers, he's going to stay on rhythm.

"If it's not to his liking, if the read doesn't come out right, he's going to take off and move to make something happen ... I think what separates him is his sense for maximizing his opportunities (outside the pocket) -- to run or to pass."

No matter where Wilson elects to throw -- quickly from the pocket on designed plays, or when freelancing outside the pocket -- two elite-quarterback traits that Wilson possesses are accuracy and turnover avoidance.

Accuracy might be the most important skill of all. Cosell agreed.

"I remember years ago Troy Aikman told me, 'You could do everything right as a quarterback, but if you can't throw it where you want to, you have nothing.' And it's a great line. I never forgot it.

"See, what I think is overlooked about Russell, because he's so athletic, is No. 1 he's got a very good arm. Not a gun, but a very good arm -- AND he is accurate. He's certainly accurate on the move, but he's accurate from the pocket as well."

As for turnovers, Wilson was picked off, on average, less than once every other week. Of the season-long NFL starters, only Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (with five) and Kansas City's Alex Smith (with six) threw fewer interceptions.

"That compensates, and camouflages, a lot of things," Cosell said of Wilson's care with the ball.

That is not a backhanded compliment, even if Cosell does not agree with those who believe the 26-year-old Wilson is already on a sure-fire trajectory toward Canton.

"Having said that, I thought he threw the ball exceptionally well last week against Carolina," Cosell said of Seattle's 31-17 homefield win the divisional playoffs.

"That may have been the best I've seen him throw it for four quarters in a game."

Quite the change from 365 days ago.

john.kryk@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/JohnKryk

blogs.canoe.ca/krykslants/


ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Russell Wilson's career highlights:

* Third youngest starting QB to win a Super Bowl (25 years, 65 days).

* One of only 3 NFL QBs to throw 50 TDs in his first two seasons (52), along with Dan Marino (68) and Peyton Manning (52).

* Has won more games in his first three seasons both overall (36) and at home (22) than any QB in the Super Bowl era.

* One of only 2 NFL QBs with 50+ TDs and 1,000+ rushing yards in any two-year span, alon with Randall Cunningham.

* One of only 2 NFL QBs to win at least 10 regular-season games in each of his first three seasons, along with Andrew Luck in the same timespan.

* Has the highest passer rating in NFL playoff history, 109.6 (minimum 150 attempts).


GAME DAY: Breaking down Packers at Seahawks

Breaking down the Packers-Seahawks NFC championship game on Sunday afternoon:

The Game

Green Bay Packers (13-4) at Seattle Seahawks (13-4)

Sunday, 3:05 p.m. EST

CenturyLink Field

Seattle, Wash.

CTV/FOX

Weather Forecast: Looks like another wet one. 90% chance of rain at kickoff and for most of the game. 10C, winds up to 28 km/h. Chance of rain drops to 35% by the fourth quarter.

THE BIG MATCHUP

Seahawks O-line vs. Packers front seven

Seattle likes to try to ram it down every defence’s throat. Even against Carolina’s formidable front-seven last week. The Panthers proved equal to the task through much of the first half, then eventually leaked a big run by Marshawn Lynch.

Green Bay’s front-seven has to commit to stopping Lynch and the Seattle run, including Russell Wilson’s killer QB keepers.

Seattle’s O-line isn’t nearly as good as the Cowboys unit the Packers faced last week. Plus, two of the Seahawks linemen (C Max Unger and rookie RT Justin Britt) are banged up. The Packers must exploit this winnable matchup if they are to win.

The telltale sign: If Seattle faces more third-and-shorts, its O-line is winning this matchup; if more third-and-longs, then the Packers front seven is prevailing.

 

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH:

1. Who’s leading midway through the second quarter

If it’s the Packers, they’ve got a shot. If it’s the Seahawks, especially if by more than one score, then forget it. Green Bay was one of the fastest starting teams in the league and needs to at least stay about even with Seattle by halftime. If the Packers can hold onto a lead, the longer they do it means they can minimize the raucous crowd’s volume -- and at some point force the Seahawks into altering or eventually even abandoning their comfortable, ground-based attack.

2. But the Seahawks don’t panic

Especially at home. Even in their lone homefield loss, to Dallas early on, the Seahawks fought until the end. “Yeah, that’s kind of a theme for our team. There’s really no panic,” Canadian tight end Luke Willson said on Thursday. “We all just believe in our abilities. I think you saw that last Saturday (against the Panthers). They were kind of loading up the box and the run game wasn’t working very well in the first half. But there was no panic for us. You just find another way to get the job done.”

3. The health of Aaron Rodgers

Both the Packers QB and his head coach, Mike McCarthy, seemed to be implying this week that Rodgers’ injured left calf -- be it slightly torn (as ESPN reports) or merely severely strained -- isn’t any worse than it was last Sunday against Dallas. It might even be a bit better. But it could worsen at any time, as it did in the regular-season finale against Detroit, when Rodgers missed about a quarter of the game. If he’s able to move around even a bit, as against Dallas, that’s great news for Green Bay.

4. When Green Bay has it third-and-long

The Packers were the most successful team in the NFL at converting third-and-longs: 40% on 3rd-and-6+, and 37% on 3rd-and-8+. Guess whose defence was best at defending 3rd-and-longs? Yup, Seattle’s, according to Football Outsiders. Commence intrigue.

5. Road to misery?

The Packers didn’t play nearly as well on the road in 2014 as at home, where they were 9-0 including last week’s playoff win against Dallas. On the road: 4-4. On the road against winning teams: 0-3. CenturyLink Field is the hardest place to play in for a visiting NFL team, and Seattle of course has by far the league’s best defence. So yeah. On the other hand, Rodgers has the best passer rating in road playoff games of any QB in NFL history -- 108.2.

INSIDE THE GAME: When these two teams opened the 2014 season in Seattle, Rodgers and the Packers had just two dangerous WRs: Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. The Seahawks secondary -- probably still the NFL’s best -- had little problem taking them away for most of the game. So spooked by the ability of all-pro cornerback Richard Sherman to blanket-cover any receiver tasked to run his way, Rodgers never threw once to the right -- to Sherman’s side. But in the past month, rookie Packers WR Davante Adams has blossomed into a dangerous, fast, shifty, dependable third downfield option for Rodgers. Does his presence mean one of the three WRs will usually be open? If so, Rodgers will find that guy almost every time. Adams’ late-season ascension could prove critical.

INJURIES

GREEN BAY: The Packers are about as healthy as a team can be at this time of year. No player is listed as questionable or doubtful. QB Rodgers (left calf), RB Lacy (knee), G Josh Sitton (toe) and DE Josh Boyd (ankle) are all probable. Boyd was expected to practise fully on Saturday. Rodgers, Lacy and Sitton were limited in practice all week.

SEATTLE: OT Justin Britt (knee) and S Jeron Johnson (elbow) are both listed as questionable. C Max Unger (ankle), DT Tony McDaniel (shoulder), third TE Tony Moeaki (calf) and CB Tharold Simon (illness) are probable. All Seahawks fully participated in Thursday’s practice. On Friday Britt was limited, while Simon missed practice entirely with his illness.

PICK

The Packers. My head says the Seahawks because they’re at home -- oh, does it ever. But, hey, before the season I predicted the Packers and Patriots would reach the Super Bowl, so I’m not going to abandon that pick now. How can the Packers win? Hmmm. Good question. They’re going to have to run successfully with Eddie Lacy to take pass-rushing pressure of Rodgers, and on defence they must contain Lynch. All of which they can do to win a low-scoring game. Prediction: Packers 16, Seahawks 13.


Reader's comments »

By adding a comment on the site, you accept our terms and conditions


Featured Businesses

Go to the Marketplace »