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How will a Russell Wilson passing offense look?

Combing through the last 5 years of Russell Wilson’s film revealed some startling frustrations as well as plenty of reasons to be excited

Denver Broncos Mandatory Minicamp Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

There are plenty of adjectives I came away with after studying the Seattle offense with Russell Wilson at the helm. Vexing. Maddening. Occasional joy. Perplexing. Startling. Overall? Frustrating.

The problem is: This problem wasn’t mainly with the Seattle offense. It wasn’t a case of a poor scheme or play design. I’ve seen plenty of those. No, the problem was, in plenty of ways, worse.

The problem was Russell Wilson.

I know that’s not exactly the most comforting sentence to read. It might immediately invoke some scornful comments and remarks, and that’s fine. The whole reason I’m writing this article is to inform, even for those that don’t want to be, and show where Wilson is at this point, and how Denver Broncos head coach Hackett can accommodate or even fix some issues that have plagued Russell Wilson to this point. I also want to get into just what the offense might look like, and see what players will ultimately benefit from Russell Wilson’s arrival in Denver for all you fantasy football fanatics out there.

Russell Wilson has been a results>process QB for the last few seasons

It’s tough to find just one starting point to get into Russell Wilson’s struggles. A lot of reps are just chaos, strung together with disjointed pocket movement and an occasional deep strike that kept them alive and draws the attention. The notion of “Let Russ Cook” in Seattle had everyone envisioning these deep shots every rep. And for good reason, Russell Wilson is one of the best deep-ball throwers in the NFL.

The problem is that a “traditional” or “orthodox” (whatever you wish to call it) just hasn’t really existed with Russell Wilson in recent years. It’s hard to create an offense with a quarterback that just completely avoids an entire section of the field. Only the Eagles threw into the middle of the field less than Seattle did last year, and Seattle’s numbers were lifted up by Geno Smith.

Wilson’s inability to see the middle of the field isn’t a new trend, either. It’s a pretty common theme with short quarterbacks. Take a look at Kyler Murray’s heat map from 2021.

The middle of the field is an area of the field critical for any sort of passing attack. Defenses that aren’t threatened by the middle of the field can crowd out the outside, and that happened repeatedly against Seattle. Teams have overwhelmingly played Cover 1, 3, and “6” against Seattle to basically try and force Wilson to throw into the middle of the field. Time and time again, Wilson would pass up open receivers in the middle to shoot for an improbable deep shot.

To add some sort of stability in the passing game, the Seahawks would often rely on quick passes outside to generate plays against teams that were pretty C3-heavy. In some games, it worked. Others...not so much.

Look at Wilson’s charting against the Rams and 49ers last season. The Seahawks went 0-2 vs the Rams and 2-0 vs the 49ers. Both were more than content in letting Russ have his first-read quick throws underneath, but the middle of the field was virtually ignored in all four games-especially in the intermediate areas.

These are Mac Jones charts, not what Russell Wilson’s should look like given his physical talent. This is unfortunately how Seattle has been forced to play in recent years with what Wilson’s style of play has regressed into.

The Seattle offense struggled to find the right balance as a result because the vast majority of passing concepts just weren’t there. The overwhelming majority of routes were ran to the outside, and defenses could attack those at will. While there were reps where the individual talents would win out, it wasn’t often enough to sustain a legitimate offense.

The drawbacks of becoming reliant on the quick game as much is the lack of explosive plays. These plays have a higher success rate of course, but Wilson wasn’t generating much production off of them. On the flip side, they were extremely productive off of deep passes, but they had a much, much lower success rate and teams adjusted to those quickly. Those deeper drops also came with increased risk.

Pocket presence

One area of difference from 2021 will be how different Wilson plays in the pocket versus Teddy Bridgewater. Wilson plays more akin to Drew Lock, with some startlingly bad habits of taking too many sacks and feeling “ghost” pressure that speeds up his clock unnecessarily. Wilson’s scrambles dipped immensely as well, going from 58 in 17 games in 2020 to just 24 in 14 games in 2021. His pressure-to-sack percentage increased as well, from 18.8% to 20%.

He just takes bad sacks. Period. When Wilson is feeling it and in rhythm, his confidence comes in and the offense looks viable. If he isn’t and the defense is giving his reads fits, Wilson almost looked gun-shy and hesitant. He went big-game hunting too often, passing up open targets underneath trying to fit into a deep shot. Of course, when that happened, he opened himself up to more pressures and hits, which add up as the game goes on. This was a big reason why I was so adamant the team find an answer at right tackle this offseason that wasn’t an average band-aid.

Wilson has still been able to generate production and produce quality moments, however. He’s still been pretty flippin’ accurate. Per SIS, 69.75% of Wilson’s attempts were deemed “On-Target” (The number of times a quarterback’s throw hits the receiver in-stride, regardless of whether the pass is completed). For comparison, Tom Brady hit a 69.95, Patrick Mahomes was a 69.45, and Josh Allen scored a 68.57. While not quite the number of Herbert or Burrow, their schemes and style of play don’t take as many deep shots as Russ has forced.

How does Hackett....“Hack-It” with Russ

This whole article has been pretty negative on Russ and I’m sure will have drawn the ire of many. While that’s ok, It’d be remiss of me to write a whole article about it without mentioning ideas on how to solve it and move forward.

The first thing that has to happen is a buy-in from Russell Wilson. While he developed these bad habits under Pete Carroll, maybe a fresh scene with a new coach might be what he needs. That feels like hopium, especially as we haven’t really seen Hackett develop a quarterback, but we’ve seen quarterbacks in recent years thrive in new schemes with a fresh start. Aaron Rodgers with Matt LaFleur, Matthew Stafford with Sean McVay, even Baker Mayfield with Kevin Stefanski pre-injury. While I don’t want to say Hackett is on the level of any of those guys just yet, they’re all running similar schemes and are young teachers of the game. If Russ can buy-in and the coaching staff isn’t enabling the bad habits and is working to correct them (remember the team has invested heavily into new and innovative teaching, even hiring a coach for coaches), the battle is already halfway won.

Next, expect them to run the ball...a lot. I know the whole “Let Russ Cook” movement, but seriously, they need to run the ball frequently and effectively early on. I wouldn’t expect a lot of Wilson’s habits to be fixed by week 1. Ideally, they’d start showing up less as the season goes on and by year 2, we’re all optimistic and you all can tell me I’m an idiot. Win-win for everyone.

Wilson’s been noticeably better off of play-action, and if they can run teams out of those two-high shells that have befuddled Wilson, those deep shots to Sutton, Jeudy, Hamler, and co will open up more and the offense can really stress the defense out. That’s why it was so critical to re-sign Melvin Gordon (and why I mocked them a running back in virtually every mock I did), because he was BY FAR their most effective runner last season. People thought Seattle ran the ball just to run the ball, but as the run game succeeded, Wilson also got better (like it is with plenty of other quarterbacks).

Even last season when he got hurt, Russell Wilson feasted off of play-action. Per SIS, Russ had 132 attempts off of play-action last season. He finished 12th in EPA, 8th in WAR, 23rd in Bust Rate (which is good), 6th in Points Earned, and 1st in Points Earned per Play with those reps. Sorting it down even further, on play-action reps off of outside zone, Russell Wilson was 2nd in positive accuracy in the NFL at 69.5% (just behind Aaron Rodgers while posting the 3rd-highest aDOT in the league at 12. He also didn’t throw a single-INT off of outside-zone play action. Outside zone is really the best type of concept to build a play-action attack out of and is the best at opening up and clearing out the MOF. Important to consider with the offense moving to an outside-zone heavy attack.

Green Bay didn’t use no-huddle all that often with Aaron Rodgers, but unless Hackett is like Doug Marrone and doesn’t like watching tape from the previous years, he should see just how effective Wilson was using no-huddle and up-tempo. Letting Russ work with clear and easy reads while keeping the defense off-balance with the tempo is only going to help Wilson’s confidence as the game goes on. Think of how effective Jared Goff was in that 2017-2018 stretch under McVay going no-huddle. Some of Wilson’s best moments last season came operating no-huddle, so there should be a notable uptick in these kinds of plays from last year’s offense.

The issues over the middle of the field aren’t going to really go away. While he might be able to be taught to look for it more, he’s a short quarterback. Those reads just aren’t really easy for him. So, Hackett has to play to his strengths outside. Expect a lot of timing routes in the intermediate areas, your sticks, out routes, curls, comebacks, etc. It’s difficult to really build out a full passing game with Wilson’s struggles with 5-step drops, but again we’re thinking buy-in here. Let him play pitch and catch and work into a rhythm. I wouldn’t expect much RPO usage, however. Just never really been a concept/look Russell Wilson has used a lot.

Of course, expect the deep ball. It’d be foolish to not mention just how silly good Russ is at the deep ball. There are 4, maybe 5, quarterbacks I’d say are on par with or better than Russ. He came in with an almost absurd 60% on-target percentage of throws over 20 yards since 2017 on my charting. For reference, I looked up Aaron Rodgers’s in that timespan. SIS put Rodgers at 178/320 or 55.6%. Russ is otherworldly in terms of production on these, he just has to get better at picking the right deep shots and not forcing them so much.

As far as the receivers go, I’m expecting Sutton to be the WR1 and take a good chunk of snaps inside and outside. He’ll be featured a lot on deep shots as the team’s premier H/W/S player and his reliability is something Russ will appreciate. When Russ does throw to the MOF, he oftentimes does so to bigger frame targets, so Sutton might be the guy to unlock that area of the field. Jerry Jeudy should be used in a similar vein as Tyler Lockett, where he can shine in the quick game, timing routes with Russ, and double-moves off of PA. He can also be interchangeable from inside to outside but he’s not a great run blocker, which limits how often he should be there in 11P looks. Tim Patrick should also factor into slot looks as a bigger frame target. It’s tough to tell how big of a role he’ll have, as Russ has been a 2-WR kind of QB for the last few years, but he’s also not had a WR3 like Patrick.

For the tight-end group, it’s tough to call. Teddy was 2nd in the NFL in attempts targeting TEs last year at 92 (per SIS), while Russ was 23rd with just 51. Russ has just one tight end who has finished top-10 in targets since 2017, and that was Jimmy Graham in 2017. The closest finish since was Jacob Hollister in 2019, who finished 20th. The tight end position hasn’t generated much in terms of targets with Nathaniel Hackett whether it was in Green Bay or Jacksonville, so it’s tough to really say either Greg Dulcich or Albert Okwuegbunam will be heavily involved. 12-personnel looks have been pretty up-and-down with both Hackett and Russ over the last few seasons as well, so I’m not expecting much usage of that to help both out. I still believe that Dulcich will be the more involved of the two, however.

Final words on the Russell Wilson offense

Make no mistake, despite all the negatives I’ve listed, Russ is still a top-10 quarterback in the league. By himself, he raises the ceiling of this team immensely. However, for the trade to ultimately be “worth it”, Wilson has to clean up the bad habits and tweak his game if Denver wants to win a Super Bowl with the gauntlet of teams in the AFC. He’s still young enough to change his game while he keeps the talent, but as he ages, the physical decline will mean less effective scrambling and deep balls (unless he discovers the TB12 method).

There’s already some positive signs. If you believe Coach Hackett about Russ’s work ethic and how frequently he’s at it, that’s a sign of the buy-in we’re hoping to see with Russ. He’s already been organizing plenty of workouts and team activities with the other offensive players, and the team’s energy is electric. That’s the Russell Wilson effect. If that starts to turn into results on the field, the league better watch out.