It was easy to chalk up Russell Wilson’s subpar performance in 2016 to a combination of knee and ankle injuries and the fact that he was playing behind the porous Seahawks offensive line, as the Seahawks’ signal caller threw a career-worst 11 picks last year to finish with a career-worst 92.6 passer rating to go with a career-worst 259 rushing yards and a career-worst 3.6 yards per carry. But after an offseason in which he lost 11 pounds, came into camp in the proverbial best shape of his life, and played out of his mind in preseason action, expectations were sky high for a big bounce-back year and potential run at the MVP award.
That campaign got off to a slow start in Seattle’s 17-9 loss to the Packers on Sunday. Seattle’s offensive line, predictably, remains a huge liability—the Packers racked up three sacks and seven quarterback hits, and they seemed to pressure Wilson on nearly every dropback—the newly svelte and healthy Wilson didn’t look any better than the guy that played through injuries last year. Wilson was frenetic at times, struggling to connect with receivers and bailing on a few clean pockets. In the third quarter, he lost a fumble at the Seahawks 6-yard line which directly led to a Ty Montgomery touchdown. Wilson finished the game with a line to forget: 14-of-27 passing for 158 yards, just 5.9 yards per attempt, no touchdowns, no picks, and a 69.7 rating. It was a concerning performance for a guy that, to this point in his career, has done a phenomenal job of overcoming the lack of protection up front.
But the Seahawks’ poor offensive showing wasn’t just on their quarterback. The run game was nonexistent: Wilson led the team with 40 yards rushing, which came on two long scrambles up the middle. Take away those plays and a screen pass to Doug Baldwin that counted as a run and lost 3 yards—and Seattle’s running backs gained just 53 yards on 15 totes, or 3.5 yards per rush. Eddie Lacy looked slow, gaining 3 yards on five carries, and C.J. Prosise was ineffectual, gaining 11 yards on four carries. Only rookie Chris Carson showed much burst, and he finished the game with six attempts for 39 yards. One of Wilson’s top targets came up short too: Early in the fourth quarter, on a key third down as the Seahawks trailed 14-6, tight end Jimmy Graham dropped a back-shoulder pass that would’ve given Seattle a first down deep into Green Bay territory—on Seattle’s next possession, he failed to come up with a contested pass on another important third down play.
The only time Seattle showed signs of life on offense was when they picked up the pace, went no-huddle, and spread out in no-back shotgun looks, a style that Wilson spoke glowingly of in his post-game presser, saying that “it tires out the defense and makes it tougher to get in their [play] calls” and “it’s something that we’ve been focusing on all offseason long, and it’s something that’s advantageous to us.”
That would be encouraging apart from the fact that spreading out and going fast are two elements that run contrary to the style head coach Pete Carroll typically desires (i.e., pound the football with a smashmouth run game, slow the game down, control the football, limit the number of opponent possessions, and dominate time of possession to wear down opposing defenses). So the Seahawks mostly stayed away from up-tempo stuff, and it just didn’t work: The offense finished with just 48 plays, tied for fourth-fewest during the Wilson era, and controlled the football for just 20 minutes, 47 seconds—their third worst time of possession in a game since 2012. When you leave the defense out on the field that long against Aaron Rodgers, bad things are bound to happen. Seattle’s defense played very well, all things considered, but a few key defensive busts—Rodgers’s lone touchdown throw came on a broken play by the Seahawks defense—plus a handful of amazing throws by the Packers’ signal caller were enough to put the game away.
Sure, Seattle lost to a very tough opponent on the road and had a few bad calls go against them—including a questionable block in the back call that robbed Nazair Jones of a pick-six and a phantom punch that ejected starting corner Jeremy Lane—and yes, there’s still plenty of time to get things on track. But it’s tough to hand-wave Seattle’s ugly offensive performance at Lambeau against what was a below-average defense last year—and there’s no longer a built-in injury excuse to explain their struggles. Seattle looks poised to field one of the best defenses in the NFL again this year, and Sheldon Richardson looks like the real deal in the middle of that defensive line, but it’s tough to envision the Seahawks as Super Bowl contenders until the run game regains a little bit of traction and Wilson turns back into the playmaker we saw during the first four years of his career. Whether the team decides to pursue wholesale changes toward a spread-out, up-tempo scheme remains to be seen, but Seattle needs its offense to give the defense some help.