Greg Cosell’s NFC Playoff Preview: Examining Russell Wilson’s slump

Greg Cosell
Shutdown Corner

Over Seattle's last five games, quarterback Russell Wilson isn't seeing things as clearly as he did early in the season. That has led to the Seahawks' offensive struggles.

His slump started in Week 14 against the same San Francisco team he'll face Sunday in the NFC championship game, and the numbers verify that his play has dipped.

Wilson hasn't thrown for more than 206 yards in his last five games. On third down he has completed less than 47 percent of his passes and has been sacked seven times, just on third down. The Seahawks have a poor 29 percent third-down conversion rate in that stretch.

I can't tell you exactly what is causing Wilson's slump, but you can see it. Sometimes it just happens. In basketball, a great shooter can go into a shooting slump. Wilson is playing a little tentatively and his game has become unstructured and random. Even on his biggest play of the game last week against New Orleans he was off.

On a third and three in the fourth quarter, Doug Baldwin ran a wheel route from the slot. It was a one-read concept with a defined throw, and Baldwin had two steps on cornerback Corey White. The ball should have been thrown out in front but Wilson threw it to Baldwin's back shoulder and allowed White to become a factor in the throw. Baldwin made a great catch for a 24-yard gain despite that.

Wilson has been inaccurate on too many basic throws, especially quick slants. He was inaccurate on a quick slant to Golden Tate in the first quarter last week against the Saints on a third and 5. That's a routine throw Wilson has to make. Wilson at times is throwing with a locked front leg, which negatively impacts accuracy. That's especially noticeable in quick passing game.

At this point Wilson is more of a random quarterback than a precision pocket player. There's too much inconsistency in his play. Wilson has become tentative in the pocket, and not willing to pull the trigger the way he did earlier in the season. And five games is a meaningful enough sample size to indicate he is struggling.

That said, can Wilson make a couple critical runs or extend passing plays with his feet on Sunday and sustain drives? Absolutely. And Wilson hasn’t played well for five weeks, but the Seahawks have won and are in the NFC championship game. If he's inconsistent at times, that can be camouflaged or compensated for by the rest of the team.

I like Wilson as a player and think he’ll get through this. I think he could have a good game Sunday because I think he's a good player on a really good team. But I’d be surprised if he’s precise and efficient from the pocket, because he hasn't been for weeks. But he could improvise and make a few big plays and the numbers would look great; that wouldn’t surprise me.

The same statement about improvising and making plays goes for 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, although he's not in a slump. Kaepernick is not a polished progression reader as a quarterback yet, but he is dangerous. It’s hard to be a quarterback in this league as an unstructured player, but you can make plays and he does.

It’s funny how individual plays stand out and what is remembered when a team wins – we wouldn’t even be talking about Kaepernick if Green Bay's Micah Hyde didn’t drop that fourth-quarter interception in San Francisco's first playoff game. Kaepernick has those moments. He made a couple poor throws against Carolina, but they didn’t impact the game because they were incomplete and on one Panthers safety Quintin Mikell dropped an interception. But Kaepernick is a really gifted guy. He can make deep throws and run the read option and the 49ers have multiple run game concepts that you can do if you have a quarterback like him. He’s a good player.

One other thing I wanted to mention is the noise at CenturyLink Field. There are tactical ramifications of crowd noise. It’s not just that it’s cool because it gets to earthquake levels.

San Francisco's running game gets affected in Seattle. Kaepernick had 87 of the 49ers' 100 rushing yards in the first meeting this year in Seattle, a 29-3 Seahawks win.

If you have a "check with me" system in the run game, that means the quarterback comes to the line and calls the play. If San Francisco has a power called to the left, Kaepernick could come to line and see a safety on the left side and know that’s where strength of defense is. He might want to switch the run to the right. The front determines the play when it's "check with me," but the quarterback doesn't know the front until he gets to the line of scrimmage. That is where the noise impacts the game tactically. It’s hard to communicate with the noise. You have to communicate this change and if you can’t you’ll have problems.

A perfect example of how crowd noise affects the passing game happened against Seattle, actually. In a game earlier this season at St. Louis, ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long got off the ball so fast, Seattle's tackles were still sitting in their stance after the snap because they couldn't hear a snap count. I know former offensive lineman Mark Schlereth, and he always says that when the defensive lineman moves before you do, you can't play. You're beat. And in Seattle, those defense linemen often move before the offensive linemen, because of the crowd noise.

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NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Throughout the season, Cosell will join Shutdown Corner to share his observations on the teams, schemes and personnel from around the league.

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