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Giants at Seahawks: When the Seahawks have the ball

Can the Giants slow down Seattle’s explosive offense?

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants Week 12 victory has them riding a three-game winning streak, their longest since their six-game winning streak in the middle of 2016.

However the Giants face a significant hurdle this Sunday if they want to extend the streak to four games, a hurdle in the form of the NFC West leading Seattle Seahawks. Or more specifically, the Seahawks’ offense.

The Giants have largely been powered by their defense this season, with Patrick Graham’s schemes helping to keep games close. There is a significant difference, however, between the offenses fielded by the Washington Football Team, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Cincinnati Bengals, and the one fielded by the Russell Wilson and the Seahawks.

The Giants might not have to deal with the crowd noise for which Seattle’s stadium is famous, but what do they have to overcome when Seattle has the ball?

Letting Russ cook

For years now, the Seahawks refusal to let their offense flow through Russell Wilson has been one of the NFL’s great crimes against football. While Wilson quickly proved to be one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL and that he probably should have been the second QB off the board in 2012 rather than a third-round pick, the Seahawks have been loathe to make him the focal point of their team.

Instead, the Seahawks have spent much of the last decade focusing on defense and their running game, leaving Wilson to put on his Super QB cape to save the team as the two units have degraded over the years. Those instances when Wilson needed late-game heroics to carry his team through the ends of games showed what Wilson was capable of, and we are finally seeing him allowed to play at that level consistently.

Pete Carroll finally relented in 2020 and opened up the Seattle offense to be a primarily passing team, allowing Wilson to do what he does best.

Since letting Russ cook, the Seahawks have fielded one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses. They are currently third in points per game, fourth in passing yards per game and fifth in total yards per game. Their ability to generate chunk plays — and points — almost at will is letting them overcome a porous pass defense while putting a strain on opposing offenses to simply keep up.

And it’s all powered by unleashing Russell Wilson as a passer.

Right now Wilson is second in the NFL in completion percentage, trailing just Drew Brees, completing 70.7 percent of his passes. But while Brees’ average pass attempt traveled just 5.8 yards in the air (per NFL NextGenStats) and averaged 3 yards short of the first down marker, Wilson’s traveled 8.9 yards in the air and 0.3 yards beyond the first down marker. And despite ranking eighth in the league in intended air yards, fifth in air yards to the sticks, his completion percentage is six points higher than expected, which leads the NFL. Considering deep passes are generally “lower probability” (that is, tend to have lower completion percentages), that astounding accuracy and efficiency. It helps that Wilson is throwing into coverage at one of the lowest rates in the NFL as well, but his accuracy to all areas of the field, inside and outside of the pocket, and on the run, are simply remarkable.

We shouldn’t consider this to be a fluke or a “light switch” season for Wilson. He is who he always has been as a passer. Wilson has been known for his mobility but his ability to quickly and accurately diagnose defenses stands out on tape. His mental processing and football IQ, combined with some impressive competitive toughness, gives him to the confidence to challenge coverages and a willingness to attack rather than simply take what the offense gives him. Wilson’s baseball background shows up when he is playing outside of the pocket or out of structure as well. Defenses need to be wary of him breaking contain — not simply because of his ability to scramble for yards, but because he keeps his eyes downfield and is able to throw off-platform and gash defenses when discipline breaks down.

These traits have always been evident in Wilson’s game, but the shift in the Seahawks’ philosophy is finally allowing Wilson to play to the level of which he was always capable.

Put simply, the Giants’ defense is facing a legitimate MVP candidate and one of the three best quarterbacks in the NFL.

DK rises

The change in Seattle’s offensive philosophy is only part of the story when it comes to their explosive passing game. It would be a mistake to assume that they never gave Wilson weapons. Over the course of his career he’s had players like Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate, Jermaine Kearse, Percy Harvin, and Zach Miller in their primes.

But none of these players are the same kind of beast as DK Metcalf, who Pete Carroll took his shirt off to draft late in the second round of 2019. Metcalf slipped an entire round that year thanks to poor agility numbers at the Scouting Combine, but that hasn’t held him back. Metcalf possesses a truly rare blend of height, weight, speed, and explosiveness at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, running a 4.33 second 40-yard dash, with a 40-inch vertical leap and an 11-foot broad jump.

Those elite traits, combined with Wilson’s ability to challenge all areas of the field with touch, timing, and anticipation have let Metcalf emerge as the premier deep threat in the NFL.

So far this season, Metcalf has averaged more than 15.0 yards per reception in eight of his 11 games, and has had 23.0 (or more) yards per reception four times. His average depth of target is nearly 15 yards downfield (14.7), he’s already gained over 1,000 yards on the season, and broken 6 tackles.

But while quoting stats gives big-picture context to his play on the season, it’s also important to see how the Seahawks put him in position to have success.

The first thing to notice is that Seattle doesn’t just treat Metcalf as a pure “X” receiver, left on one side of the field, lined up on the line of scrimmage all game. Instead, the Seahawks move Metcalf to a variety of alignments, playing both sides of the formation, out of bunch sets, and even out of the slot.

Metcalf’s explosiveness puts cornerbacks in a serious bind. If they aren’t able to re-route him early, there is the distinct possibility that he will get a step on them and create separation downfield.

One of Metcalf’s weaknesses is his lack of agility, however the threat posed by his speed and explosiveness forces many corners to respect his deep speed and defend against chunk plays, which creates opportunities underneath. Metcalf isn’t able to win with short-area quickness, but that isn’t as necessary if he presses his stems vertically and forces corners to give him yards of space as a cushion.

If the Giants are going to successfully defend Metcalf, they are going to have to force him to win with his agility, something he can’t really do. His other main weakness is somewhat questionable hands.

While Metcalf is a remarkably strong and powerful receiver, but he is prone to drops. So far this season he has five games with a less than 60 percent catch rate and already has 6 drops on the season. If the Giants are unable to force Metcalf to rely on his agility to get separation — which is easier said than done — they are going to have to be aggressive at the catch point and try to force drops. While Metcalf is bigger, faster, and stronger than James Bradberry, the Giants’ corner does excel at playing the ball at the catch point. The trick will be baiting Wilson into throwing to Metcalf and forcing those contested catches.

Complicating matters is the presence of Tyler Lockett. Lockett presents a dangerous contrast to Metcalf — where Metcalf is big and powerful, Lockett is smaller and does well to win with short-area quickness. The Giants won’t be able to apply one coverage principle to the Seahawks entire offense. They’ll need to be creative if they want to keep the ball in Wilson’s hands.

Disrupting Wilson

The Achilles heel of the Seahawks’ offense has long been its offensive line. For much of Wilson’s career its been a solid run blocking unit but had porous pass protection. Seattle has worked to shore up the aging and struggling unit over the last couple season, bringing in free agents and young players to rebuild their offensive line, as well as former Giants’ offensive line coach Mike Solari.

And all that work has paid off ... Sorta.

The Seahawks have something of a Jekyll and Hyde offensive line. Similar to the Giants in recent weeks, they are capable of holding up in pass protection on quick-passing concepts where the ball is out quickly. But they also break down on more slowly developing plays. Seattle’s offensive line at once ranks eighth in the NFL in Pass Block Win Rate, winning pass protection reps (that is, not allowing pressure in less than 2.5 seconds) on 62 percent of passing plays. However, Russell Wilson is also the third-most sacked QB in the NFL, and Seattle is tied with the Washington Football Team in giving up 35 sacks on the season.

Seattle doesn’t have a single issue forcing their disjointed stat line. Part of the problem is suspect pass protection from running backs and tight ends leading to missed blitzes. Another part is their willingness to attack downfield. While Wilson is playing incredibly well and completing passes at a remarkable rate, throwing downfield does force him to hold onto the ball longer.

Seattle frequently makes use of play-action and bootleg rollouts in their offense, slowing the defense and moving the pocket to buy time for Wilson. However, that also means he has the fourth-longest time to throw in the NFL at 2.93 seconds — significantly longer than the 2.5 seconds which constitutes a pass rush “win”.

That also gives the Giants’ defense one last avenue to attack Seattle’s offense. If they can be disciplined and not bite too hard on play-fakes, Seattle’s deep-strike offense should give them opportunities to get to Wilson. That, of course, doesn’t mean that disrupting Wilson will be easy. He’s unlikely to be plagued by indecision or unable to decipher the Giants’ coverages. However, if they can disguise their intentions enough, and be disciplined in not falling for the Seahawks’ misdirection, they could get the four to five seconds they typically need to get to the passer.

Keeping Seattle from controlling the game through the air will be the Giants’ best chance of coming up with the upset.