Eventually the Pressure Gets to Everybody

There was 10:43 left in the game, with Seattle down by ten points and facing a second-and-seven from their own 48.  Trying to disguise their coverage, the Rams lined Kenny Young in the middle linebacker position, even though his responsibility in the zone scheme would be the right flat.  So, when running back Alex Collins ran straight toward that area at the snap, Young had to quickly vacate the middle.

When Seattle wide receiver D.K. Metcalf curled into that void left in the middle, he was about as wide open as he would be the whole game.  He had first down distance.  But the throw never came.

At the snap, Los Angeles linebacker Terrell Lewis blitzed, and there was no one to account for him.  Tight end Greg Olsen – who lined up over him – released immediately into the pattern, and Duane Brown – the tackle on that side – was occupied with Micah Kiser.  Lewis stepped gingerly into the backfield, as if he couldn’t understand that there was no one there to block him.  He hesitated for just a second, but it was enough to give quarterback Russell Wilson the moment he needed to make the throw to Metcalf to pick up the first down.

But Wilson froze.  Knowing that Lewis was coming, Russell pulled the ball into his chest, ducked his head, and braced himself for the impact that was still about two seconds away.

Russell Wilson is and has been for several years one of the great competitors in the league – and, in fact, has been one of the faces of the league.  But by the fourth quarter of Sunday afternoon’s game in Los Angeles, Russell was pretty much shell shocked.  The relentless pressure that the Rams poured upon will do that.

Eventually the pressure gets to everybody.  And for Wilson these days, the pressure is coming from many different directions.

In his first possession of this game, Wilson led the Seahawks on an excellent 7-play, 78-yard touchdown drive.  They held the ball for 9 plays and over four minutes the next time they had the ball, but ended up punting.

When Wilson and the offense came out for their third possession, they trailed by ten points.  In their Week Nine game against Buffalo, they were down 14-0 before they could blink.  When you play in front of a defense ranked last in the NFL in yards allowed and twenty-eighth in points allowed, you feel pressure from more than just the defense lining up against you.  You get pressure from your own defense.

Wilson also has the pressure to be the running game as well, as the Seahawks cannot keep healthy running backs in their backfield.  So all of that responsibility falls on him as well.  Wilson led his team in rushing again against the Rams, accounting for 60 of their 113 ground yards.  For the season, Russell has rushed for 325 yards.  Of the players on the active roster, DeeJay Dallas and Travis Homer are tied for second on the team in rush yards.  They each have 88.

It’s a lot to put on the back of Wilson, who also spent much of Sunday afternoon with hundreds of pounds of defensive linemen on his back as Seattle ran into the buzz saw that is the Ram defense.  Los Angeles sacked Wilson 6 times (5 of those in the second half), hit him numerous other times, and held him to a passer rating of 57.0 – his worst single-game rating since Week 14 of the 2018 season – on their way to a 23-16 victory (gamebook) (summary).  In a 21-7 conquest of the Minnesota Vikings, Wilson was just 10 for 20 for only 72 yards with no touchdowns against 1 interception.

As far as the sacks go, Russell has now been sacked at least twice in every game this year.  You would have to go back to Week Three of the 2019 season to find the last time Wilson hasn’t been sacked in a game.  He has now been sacked at least 3 times in 5 of the 9 games played so far this year, getting sacked 4 times or more in four of those games.

This issue has reached its tipping point over the last two games, which has seen Wilson go down 11 times – the basis for all the turnovers coming out of the quarterback position recently.  In Seattle’s first 5 games, Wilson turned the ball over only 3 times.  He has coughed it up 10 times in the last 4 games – 7 of those in the last two contests.

This has all led to another source of pressure on Wilson – pressure from the coaching staff.

But there is more than enough blame to go around, here.  Wilson should have expected better from his coaching staff, too, which called very few zone-beating plays, even though a high percentage of zone was expected.

All that being said, though, Wilson looked as disoriented as I have ever seen him.  With 7:59 to go in the game, Wilson turned a third-and-four at the Ram 38-yard line into a third-and-nine as he watched the play clock expire.  He then threw an interception on third-and-nine.

On Seattle’s last drive, with about a minute and a half left in the game, Wilson scrambled 14 yards for a first down.  But with the sidelines in sight, Russell slid to a stop in bounds that kept the clock winding – even though the Hawks were down by two scores.

Repeatedly, Wilson seemed hesitant – waiting to see what might develop instead of anticipating which receivers were about to uncover.  At times, he seemed a little lost.

As galling as anything else, Wilson lost the feel for his signature moon-ball – those long highlight reel rainbow throws that arch impossibly high over the defender and drop straight down into the receiver’s arms.  It’s a unique skill that has made Wilson one of the league’s best deep ball threats.

On Sunday, Wilson was 0-for-6 with an interception on passes over 20 yards, with his throws coming out surprisingly flat and more like line drives that either gave defensive backs the opportunity to make a play on it, or that went soaring over the receiver’s head.

With 4:27 left in the first half, Seattle ran one of their few zone-beating plays as Greg Olsen’s vertical route demanded the attention of Darious Williams, pulling him away from his responsibility for the deep left.  Freddie Swain leapt into the void and ran to the corner of the end zone, wide open.  Wilson threw it over his head.

With 13:47 left, D.K Metcalf flew up the left sideline, gaining a step on Jalen Ramsey, only to have Wilson’s throw graze off his fingertips.

With 52 seconds left in the contest, another middle vertical from Olsen held the safety on the right side (Nick Scott), leaving Williams all alone against Tyler Lockett.  At one point, Lockett was about 7 yards behind Williams.  But by the time the throw arrived (and this one would have been perfect), Williams had closed the gap enough that he could launch himself into the air, and – left arm at full extension – deflect the pass away.

So went the day for Russell Wilson – and for the Ram defense.  Especially Darious Williams who had both interceptions to go with the miracle pass defense.

Defense Is For Real

Nitpicking Wilson’s performance would be easy enough – he didn’t have his best day.  But after watching the game, I came away more impressed with the Ram defense than I am concerned about the Seahawk offense.

Over the last six games this Ram defense has really hit its stride.  They have given all of 7 offensive touchdowns (and several of those have come on short fields).  In those games, opposing passers are rating just 76.0 and opposing running games are gaining just 85.5 yards a game and 3.7 yards per carry.

The Rams blitzed Wilson some – just 26% of the time (which is less than the 29.7% league average).  The Rams aren’t a heavy blitz team – sending an extra rusher only 28.4% of the time.  But that’s because the Rams don’t need to blitz.  With havoc-wreckers like Leonard Floyd, Michael Brockers and especially Aaron Donald on the line, the Rams are one of those teams that have the luxury of getting great pressure from four rushers and playing disciplined zone defense behind them.

The two lynch-pins of the defense are Donald – whose greatness is challenging the limits of the English language to codify it, and cornerback Ramsey – who can generally make any feared wide receiver disappear.  He did this, mostly, to Metcalf.  DK entered the game second in the NFL in receiving yards with 788, third in average yards per catch with 18.3, and second in receiving touchdowns with 8.  He exited the game with 2 catches for 28 yards, mostly lined up against Ramsey.

Here, though, is another coaching issue.  I don’t really remember Ramsey switching sides of the field to take Metcalf, and he never took Metcalf when he lined up in the slot.  He stayed almost exclusively on the defensive right corner.  It was the Seattle game plan that kept lining DK up over Ramsey, making most of what the Rams wanted to do that much easier.

There are several things the Rams can do differently and better when they rematch against the Rams in Week 16.  But none of them are likely to matter too much if they can’t find a way to still Aaron Donald.

By reputation one of the elite linemen in football, Aaron was every bit of that last Sunday.  On multiple occasions, Seattle tried to triple-team Donald.  Mostly that benefitted the other pass rushers.

With 5:25 left in the third, the entire left side of the Seattle offensive line (tackle Brandon Shell, guard Damien Lewis, and center Kyle Fuller) took on Donald.  When the Rams blitzed, running back Nick Bellore was forced to stay in and try to block blitzing linebacker Micah Kiser.  When Kiser blew right past Bellore, Wilson was forced to evacuate the pocket, running right into the waiting arms of Floyd.

Other times even the triple team wasn’t enough to slow down Donald.

With 2:02 left in the game, the Hawks faced first-and-ten on the Ram 48.  Seattle assigned Fuller, Jamarco Jones (playing guard after Mike Iupati went down) and Dallas to neutralize Aaron.  They couldn’t.  Donald churned his way through all of them, still arriving at the quarterback in time to force a bad throw.

As well as the zone coverage in the back played, there were many times that the pressure covered up one of their breakdowns.

With 14 seconds left in the first half, Lockett turned cornerback Troy Hill completely around as he ran through the back of the zone.  But by that time, Russell was running for his life.  Olsen had barely brushed Floyd as Leonard came pouring in all but unabated on his pass rush.

With 9:28 left in the game, safety Jordan Fuller settled down on Lockett’s cross, allowing Metcalf to blow past Williams (one of the few times that Seattle shifted Metcalf to the right side).  Again, Russell never had the chance.  This time linebacker Justin Hollins beat Shell to collapse the pocket.

The Los Angeles defensive concept puts quarterbacks in quite a bind.  There were almost always receivers open early underneath the zones.  An offense could choose – if it wanted to – to create a game plan around three-yard dump passes and hope they can drive the field without committing a penalty or dropping a pass.

But if they decide to hold the ball and wait for something to develop downfield, they will usually run out of time to come back to their check down route.  Unless you can stop Donald, you will have to throw quickly or not at all.

One way or another, the pressure will eventually get to them.

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