Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider both frequently cite a roster-building maxim they’ve preached to the team’s scouting and coaching staff over the past 10 years, a simple rule they credit as foundational to Seattle’s sustained success: Focus less on what a potential draft or free-agency acquisition can’t do, and tell me what that player can do. That mantra’s fingerprints are all over this current roster. After he spent last year on the couch, where can a 33-year-old Marshawn Lynch help us? they might ask. Well, he may not be the every-down bell cow that he used to be, but as it turns out, the enduring ability to run through somebody’s face can be a useful tool in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
That philosophy of inclusion has certainly not been foolproof for the Seahawks, who’ve had their fair share of swings and misses in both free agency and the draft. But as Lynch and, more importantly, rookie receiver DK Metcalf showed in Seattle’s 17-9 win over Philadelphia in Sunday’s wild-card-round action, the Seahawks’ emphasis on figuring out how a player’s unique strengths can fit what the team wants to do can provide a powerful edge. Metcalf showed why he’s an absolutely perfect fit for the Seahawks’ scheme in the win, reeling in seven catches for a rookie playoff record 160 yards and a touchdown in his postseason debut. The dynamic receiver was the big-play X factor the Seahawks desperately needed to get past a resilient, banged-up Eagles team on Sunday―and he could be the difference-maker the team needs next weekend in its divisional-round matchup with the Packers.
After being widely projected as a first-round prospect for most of the college season, Metcalf fell into the late second round back in April―the ninth receiver to come off the board. Part of that draft-weekend drop was due to concerns over a neck injury he suffered in 2018, but another major catalyst was the unbelievably poor agility he showcased at the NFL combine. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound pass catcher clocked in at 7.38 seconds in the three-cone drill, a time that ranked slower than Tom Brady in 2000 and raised a potentially massive red flag for teams trying to determine which receivers would be able to separate themselves at the NFL level. The concerns were, honestly, pretty understandable―even taking Metcalf’s blazing 4.33-second 40-yard time and 40.5-inch vertical jump into consideration. It should be noted that Seattle was among the teams who passed on a chance to take Metcalf with its first-round pick. And with its second-rounder.
But the Seahawks were the team that stopped Metcalf’s shocking Day 2 fall, trading back up into the second round and grabbing him with the 64th pick. Carroll and Schneider were smart enough to look past the big pass catcher’s lack of short-area quickness and instead see a guy who’d bring field-tilting speed to their play-action-heavy, deep-passing offense under Russell Wilson. Metcalf’s battleship-like turn radius shows up now and again when he runs certain routes in the short area, sure, but Seattle rarely asks him to do that, instead putting its rookie receiver’s unique skill set to good use in other ways. With a rare combination of size, acceleration, and take-the-top-off-a-defense-type speed, Metcalf is a dangerous go-to guy for the Seahawks. When Lynch was asked what impressed him most about Metcalf after Sunday’s win, he replied, “That he a big ass dude who can move like that.”
Sunday’s game was a true breakout performance for a player who gradually improved all season long en route to 58 catches for 900 yards and seven touchdowns. Seattle brought its rookie receiver along slowly, typically deploying him on the left side of the field only (as he was used in college) while limiting what it asked of him as a route runner. On Sunday, the Seahawks moved Metcalf around far more freely than normal, a break from their schematic tendencies that had the Eagles struggling to adapt.
D.K. Metcalf Route Charts [Last Week vs Today]:— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 5, 2020
The @Seahawks are breaking tendencies based on Metcalf's usage in the passing game in the first half.
Left Wide (12 routes): 3 targets, 2 rec, 30 yards
Right Wide (7 routes): 3 targets, 3 rec, 41 yards#SEAvsPHI | #Seahawks pic.twitter.com/ciWFt0wiqa
Instead of deploying him primarily on vertical routes, the Seahawks mixed up Metcalf’s usage against Philly. He caught a slant route from the right on the team’s first play from scrimmage, picking up 8 yards.
Later in the quarter, he got himself open on a scramble-drill play, again working the right side of the field to provide Wilson an option. This converted a third-and-11 and helped lead to a Seattle field goal.
Metcalf took this short crosser on a third-and-4 in the second quarter and picked up 26 yards, using his speed to easily pull away from coverage. This too helped lead to a Seahawks score.
His two biggest plays, though, came in the second half. Nursing a 10-6 lead over the Carson Wentz–less Eagles, Seattle needed a spark―and got one here from its rookie playmaker. Metcalf went deep on a second-and-11 from the Seahawks’ 47-yard line and almost instantly had an advantage on the Eagles defense. Wilson dropped back on a play-action fake and saw quickly that Philly was blitzing. With no time to sit back in the pocket and let the play develop, he uncorked a bomb to Metcalf, who did the rest:
As former NFL star Chad Johnson pointed out on Twitter, there’s no middle ground when defending Metcalf. Teams either must press him and disrupt timing, or play 7 yards off and prevent him from getting behind the defense. The Eagles did neither.
You can’t play in no mans land with Metcalf, either get up there & play bump-n-run or 7 yards off, read 3 step & keep him in front of you. Young boul is gonna be nice— Chad Johnson (@ochocinco) January 5, 2020
Metcalf’s incredible drag-racer acceleration was the key to the play, at least early, allowing Wilson to quickly step up and get rid of the ball on what’s normally a slower-developing type of play-action deep shot. His incredible size showed up late in the play too: Metcalf reached out to the slightly overthrown pass using his go-go-gadget arms, reeled it in, tumbled, and got back up to dive into the end zone. Carroll’s framing of Metcalf’s performance after the game was accurate: “He did some stuff that it’s hard to imagine anybody else doing.”
Metcalf wasn’t done making a massive impact on the game. Leading 17-9, Seattle faced a third-and-10 from its own 11-yard line with 1:47 to go. The last thing the team wanted to do was give the ball back to the Eagles offense. So offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer dialed up an aggressive and ultimately decisive play. Metcalf came out of his stance as if the team was running it, feigning a stalk block for his first few steps. But after lulling his defender to sleep, Metcalf hit the afterburners and shot past the Eagles’ Cover-0 look, giving Wilson a wide-open target downfield.
Metcalf finished the game averaging a career-high 5.2 yards per route run and caught three passes of 20-plus yards in the air, racking up 113 yards and a score on those plays. In the Seahawks’ scheme, short-area quickness clearly isn’t everything. Seattle’s found plenty of ways to deploy its limited but highly talented rookie receiver who perfectly meshes with Wilson’s skill set. Wilson finished the regular season with a 51.9 percent completion rate on passes of 30-plus air yards―best in the league, per NFL Next Gen Stats―and the 31-year-old quarterback was efficient on play-action this year, too, throwing 10 touchdowns and no picks on those plays, per PFF. Metcalf is a major factor in both areas.
Seattle got contributions from a bevy of other offensive skill players on Sunday, but none were more important than Metcalf’s. Sure, Lynch did provide some much-needed indomitable power on a few occasions, but the team’s normally strong ground game mustered just 19 yards on 17 rushes. The Seahawks’ passing game carried the day, and when Wilson needed someone to step up, Metcalf was consistently there. In fact, Wilson just barely missed Metcalf on what would’ve been a 75-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
We saw it all weekend: Playoff football is defined by hard-fought battles between closely matched teams, and games often come down to one or two pivotal moments. As Seattle (and Minnesota, Tennessee, and Houston) proved, the teams that execute in those critical moments move on; those that don’t go home.
The Seahawks squeaked past the Eagles on Sunday but face a far tougher challenge next weekend against a healthy, well-rested, Aaron Rodgers–led Packers team. And while Seattle’s produced plenty of postseason magic over the years, this is a different Seahawks team than we’re used to seeing. Wilson no longer has a top-tier defense or run game to lean on, but he’s never really had a receiver in Metcalf’s mold, either. The explosive, mismatch-creating rookie pass catcher opens up a new dimension for Seattle’s passing attack―and could be the key to another long Seahawks playoff run.