Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo Credit: Brian Curski Photography
Luke Inman contributed to this story.
It’s hard to expect the Minnesota Vikings to perform any better against Russell Wilson than they did last Dec. 10 on a Monday night in Seattle. Wilson passed for a career-low 72 yards, the Seahawks went 3 of 11 on third down, and the Vikings held Seattle to just one red zone touchdown in four trips, snatching a late-first-half interception in the process.
But Minnesota still lost that game 21-7, signaling the end of John DeFilippo’s short tenure as the team’s offensive coordinator.
Nearly a year later, the Vikings get another crack at Wilson and the Seahawks, who’ve owned the Vikings to the tune of a 5-0 record since Wilson came on the scene in 2012. The quarterback turns 31 this week, but he’s hardly lost a step as he continues to display above-average pocket awareness, uncanny elusiveness and incredible passing touch.
All of those traits seem to get magnified in the red zone, where Wilson leads the league with 19 passing touchdowns, two better than fellow MVP candidate Lamar Jackson in Baltimore.
“There was a play against San Fran where he threw the ball to the tight end and he just floated it up,” said cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who said he started watching Wilson’s tape last Wednesday during the bye week. “It was great coverage, but how he just made the tight end fall off off the coverage and threw the tight end open. Just little things like that Russell does.”
Here’s the play Rhodes is talking about from a couple different angles. It comes on a play-action, where Wilson has the best passer rating in football (142.4). Wilson’s flip to tight end John Hollister is one of numerous off-balance, on-the-move throws you’ll see in this story that only a handful of NFL passers could make.
Wilson’s ability to improvise remains unmatched. While the red zone is typically an area where coverage gets easier because of the tighter boundaries, Wilson eliminates that advantage by forcing defensive backs to cover longer than the typical three or four seconds.
“There’s a good chance he’s going to give the receivers like 13 seconds,” Rhodes said.
Wilson has 13 touchdown passes when he spends more than 2.5 seconds in the pocket, per Pro Football Focus, the second-most in football. He has the league’s third-highest passer rating in those situations (Kirk Cousins in no. 1).
“We have to be disciplined in our rush lanes and be where we’re supposed to be because he’ll go out, he’ll go back, he’ll go out, he’ll go left, he’ll go right,” Zimmer said. “He goes all the different places, and their receivers do a great job of taking off when he starts to scramble.”
Arguably Wilson’s finest throw of the year came on Oct. 3 against the Rams, where he held the ball for seven seconds before hitting Tyler Lockett in the back corner of the end zone. Wilson is moving to his left with almost no throwing platform and the Rams defensive back in great coverage. It’s these type of throws that Wilson makes commonplace.
Notice how Lockett reacts when he realizes Wilson is scrambling. He runs straight for the corner, heading for the boundary where only he can catch it. “He just buys time for receivers that are covered,” said linebacker Anthony Barr. “They have a lot of good weapons, too.”
Later in that game, Wilson completes the game-winning pass with a fourth-down improv where he bluffs a run, pulls up at the line of scrimmage and finds Chris Carson alone in the end zone.
Since coming into the league in 2012 as a third-round pick, Wilson is sixth in the NFL with 144 red zone touchdowns, but he has the fewest interceptions of those six quarterbacks with seven.
“He makes good decisions,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll on a conference call, “he doesn’t give you the ball, he can make things happen.”
The key to many of Wilson’s amazing red zone throws is his ability to use the boundaries to his advantage by putting enough loft on his throws to get over defensive backs with enough touch to create catchable balls for his receivers.
Take a look at the following six red zone strikes, where Wilson hits his receivers in the corners.
No. 1: Throwing to the right…
No. 2: Throwing to the left…
No. 3: Throwing while getting hit…
No. 4: Hitting receivers in stride…
No. 5: Throwing quickly against a blitz…
No. 6: Buying time…
“His deep ball’s always been good, but just the intermediate routes, the over routes, he’s been good in the red zone for them,” said linebacker Eric Kendricks, “so he’s playing at a really high level.”
Kendricks and Barr may be in charge of guarding Seattle’s tight ends, who have caught seven of Seattle’s red zone touchdowns this year. With Will Dissly hurt, Jacob Hollister is becoming one of Wilson’s favorite end zone targets. He caught a game-winning overtime touchdown from Wilson in Week 9.
The Seahawks miss Dissly, though, who racked up 262 yards in the first five games, including these two impressive touchdown grabs from Wilson.
Even with zeros on the clock and the Seahawks out of the game, Wilson bought time and hit Dissly in between two Saints for this Week 3 touchdown. “He’s going to run around,” said Rhodes. “He might run 30 yards downfield backwards, if he can find someone open. You never know.”
Said Kirk Cousins about his upcoming opponent and former college rival: “His ability to play off schedule, and a lot of players do it, but he does it in a way where he still protects the football, he still avoids a lot of sacks, he’s very accurate on the run, and he’s done it since probably before I even watched him play. My senior year in college at Wisconsin, when we played them twice, it was the exact same game. It was the same style, same talent, and you could see he just had a natural feel for playing the position and feeling the rush and finding the open guy, and sometimes if the guy’s not open still throwing him open.”
The Seahawks have the fifth-best red zone scoring percentage in the NFL, one spot behind Cousins and the Vikings. On the other side of the ball, the Vikings sit sixth in red zone defense, and they’ve prevented teams from scoring touchdowns on 70% of trips over the last three games, including two red zone stops in the waning seconds to seal their last two victories. If the Vikings can finish top five in red zone defense, it will be the fourth time in five seasons they’ve done so.
“Really, it’s stopping the run,” said Barr. “You stop the run in the red zone, it’s going to make it more difficult for teams, and the closer you get the less space you have to operate and the easier it is for the defense to play pass defense. So I think we’re doing a good job of run defense in the red zone. I think we’ve given up one touchdown all season.”
Actually, it’s two, but that’s still the best in football.
That stat, however, may only prompt Wilson to shoulder more responsibility, which will likely stress the Vikings’ secondary throughout the game.
“He’s a lot like [Aaron] Rodgers in the red zone to me,” Zimmer said. “He moves, makes it difficult for the defense on the combination routes that they run, and he’s going to add that extra dimension of movement whether it’s the boots or the scramble.”
If the Vikings can duplicate last December’s effort against Wilson, they could be walking away victorious from a place that’s plagued them for years. But it’s hard to imagine Wilson putting up another dud.
“We have to know what type of quarterback he is,” said Rhodes. “He’s going to throw his guys open, so we’ve got to be in tight coverage.”