Is Russell Wilson slower?
As the Seahawks begin their fifth consecutive playoffs, is their quarterback still limited in his running? Is he still lacking speed, after the high ankle sprain and sprained knee he got in mid- and late September?
“I don’t know. I’m not sure,” Seattle’s offensive coordinator and play caller, Darrell Bevell, said this week while preparing for Saturday’s wild card game against the Detroit Lions at CenturyLink Field.
“You know, it’s funny, we look back at some earlier cut-ups (of game plays) and we’re like, ‘Man! Look at that guy!’ He looks really fast and really quick and moving. But sometimes you see it each and every day.
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“I don’t know if he’s a hundred percent. He’s probably not running 4.4, like he was coming out of the combine. But, obviously, he still runs well enough to be able to do the things that we need him to do.”
It should come as zero surprise that Wilson won’t admit he’s less than 100 percent healthy.
“I’ve had some bumps and bruises along the way,” Wilson said Wednesday. “But I feel really good. I feel like any play I need to make I can make, for sure. So that’s the exciting part. So I still feel really fast and all that.
“If you asked me several weeks ago, you know, I wasn’t moving my fastest. But I feel really good right now.”
Wilson’s career was in wondrously improvisational overdrive from 2012 through last January’s divisional playoff loss at Carolina. He rallied Seattle from 31-0 down in the first half that day to within 31-24 with a chance to tie the eventual NFC champions late.
Then on Sept. 11, Miami’s Ndamukong Suh stepped on his right leg while sacking him, causing a high ankle sprain. Two weeks later, San Francisco’s Eli Harold got past Seattle’s iffy offensive line, spraining Wilson’s medial collateral ligament in his left knee. Doctors advised Wilson that the latter injury should have led to four weeks of rest. He didn’t miss a practice.
He played on, through months of waking up in the middle of the night for rehabilitation. In that span, he wore a bulky brace. He wasn’t running as he had for brilliant, improvisational plays in his first four seasons, but he was still better for the Seahawks than having undrafted rookie Trevone Boykin start games at quarterback.
Wilson, who turned 28 in November, has learned through these firsts of his football life.
“It’s a new experience, so I guess that’s kind of a learned thing,” he said. “I haven’t really ever been injured before. I think for me, even dating back to college (Wisconsin and North Carolina State) and high school (The Collegiate School in Richmond, Virginia), I’ve been fortunate that way.
“(It’s been) learning something new, learning how to overcome the injuries, learning how to continually do everything I can to balance. I think that’s kind of the biggest thing, is to be able to balance the treatment and the film study and the extra work and all that, while also being smart too, physically. You know me, I like to push the limit a little bit.
“Obviously, haven’t missed a practice or anything.”
Eventually, the brace on his left knee became a smaller, titanium one. In games such as the win at New England in mid-November, versus Philadelphia the following week and the blowout of Carolina to begin December, Wilson looked fast again. The running game starting getting 2012-to-2015-like numbers of 152 and 240 yards in games.
But in the last couple of weeks, notably Sunday on the notoriously loose grass field in Santa Clara, California, against San Francisco, Wilson appeared slower again.
He said Wednesday he may not need the brace any longer, but that he’ll likely wear it in the playoffs “for safety.” He insists he’s as fast as he needs to be. Yet more defenders have caught up to him more times this season than perhaps in the previous four seasons combined. And his runs have been certifiably fewer.
Far fewer. Because of the injuries, Wilson ran a career-low 72 times this season, and 32 of those were scrambles on which he was forced to try to run away from pass rushers.
Consequently, defenses have been playing Wilson and the Seahawks differently. Fewer teams are devoting linebackers, ends or extra defensive backs as spies behind the line of scrimmage to track Wilson trying to run around the ends, as they had been for years. More defenses are stacking the inside run lanes and overwhelming Seattle’s questionable offensive line, without as much concern that Wilson will burn that approach by keeping the ball around the end on read-option plays. There have been fewer of those keepers by Seattle’s QB this season.
And, as Bevell and line coach Tom Cable acknowledged this week, another effect has been on the effectiveness of the Seahawks’ play-action passing. That had been a lethal weapon when they were one of the top rushing teams in the league. This season, the fake-handoff passes haven’t fooled as many, not with Seattle 25th in the NFL in rushing.
“I think that’s a good point,” Cable said. “It’s not as good. And I think that’s why it’s important. As long as we keep mixing, we’re OK. If you go too far one way or another, I think it puts you behind it pretty good.”
The Seahawks finished with 609 pass plays this season. That includes the 42 plays on which they got sacked but doesn’t include the 34 scrambles by Wilson (32) and backup quarterback Boykin (two). They had 403 rushing attempts, minus the 34 scrambles. That means they had 643 called pass plays and 369 called runs. A split of 643 passes to 369 runs is far out of whack from any other season since Pete Carroll arrived to install his run-based philosophies in 2010.
“If you look at us, when we’re best on offense is when we mix,” said Cable, Seattle’s run-game coordinator. “If we lean one way or the other, that’s probably not who we are at our best. Whether it’s big runs or two- or three-yard runs, it really hasn’t mattered. As long as the right balance and mix is there, we’ve been pretty good offensively.”
All that imbalance this season has been related to Wilson getting hurt— and him still appearing to be less than 100 percent healed.
All that needs to get better for the Seahawks to advance deep into these playoffs.
“To be able to overcome the situations that we’ve been able to overcome, and to be able to be where we are right now, with a playoff chance to play at home against the Detroit Lions,” Wilson said, “is a testament to the character of guys that we have. To the will of the guys we have. To the commitment to success that we want to have.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle