Packers' defense hopes to keep having Russell Wilson's number

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) is pursued by Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews (52), defensive end Mike Daniels (76) and inside linebacker Joe Thomas (48) during the first quarter of their game Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016 at Lambeau Field.

GREEN BAY – The first interception was almost an accident. Twelve yards downfield, Russell Wilson had tight end Jimmy Graham in single coverage crossing between the hashes.

Those are good odds.

Except when Wilson reared back to throw, Graham stumbled. Maybe Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett provided a little shove on his back hip. Maybe not. Recalling the play Thursday, Burnett shrugged.

“Just two guys competing after the ball,” he said.

By the time Wilson released the football, his All-Pro tight end was in free fall. Wilson’s pass smacked Burnett square in the hands, like he was the intended receiver, an all-time easy interception.

With that, the flood gates opened last December. In the final three quarters of the Seattle Seahawks' last visit, the Packers intercepted Wilson five times. Together, they were a comedy of errors.

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One end-zone pass deflected off LaDarius Gunter’s left shoulder pad, into fellow cornerback Quinton Rollins’ hands. Another bounced straight into the air off wide-open receiver Doug Baldwin’s facemask, allowing Damarious Randall to catch the football like a pop fly.

Then there was the most preposterous pick, a screen pass running back Troymaine Pope batted in the air like a volleyball, letting safety Micah Hyde run underneath.

“The same bounces we were getting that Seattle game, it wasn’t happening for us all year,” Rollins said, “and that’s the game it finally did happen to us. You see other teams around the league, they get them plays early and often. It’s just the way the ball bounced that day.

“That was kind of our coming-out party last year, when we played them. It just happened to be our day that day.”

Short of a 28-3 comeback in the Super Bowl, what the Packers’ porous secondary did against Wilson last season might have been the most surprising performance across the NFL. The stat sheet was illogical. By last December, the Packers were starved for turnovers.

Then they picked off five Wilson passes, the most in his career.

But this wasn’t a one-game fluke. In their past three games against Wilson, the Packers have intercepted him 10 times. Four came in the 2014 NFC championship game, and though the Packers collapsed in the final five minutes, their defense dominated Wilson through the first 55.

Efficiency has been the foundation of Wilson’s quarterback play since he entered the NFL as a third-round pick out of Wisconsin in 2012. As much as his athleticism outside the pocket, Wilson’s turnover-averse style has helped compensate for his lack of height.

In 87 career games against other opponents, the 5-11 Wilson never has thrown four interceptions. The only other time he threw three interceptions in a game came in the first month of his rookie season against the then-St. Louis Rams.

He has done it twice against the Packers.

“He reminds me of (Tim) Tebow a little bit,” cornerback Davon House said, “where he’s just a winner. He’s not going to wow you with 45, 50 touchdowns a year, but he’s a winner. You look at him, people might say he looks like a DB, because he’s (5-11), maybe 195-205 — maybe. So he’s not that big, but within (his chest) it’s all heart, desire. He loves to compete.”

In five seasons, Wilson has thrown 127 touchdown passes and just 45 interceptions. His almost 3-to-1 ratio trumps the first player drafted in his 2012 class. Andrew Luck, the Indianapolis Colts quarterback, hasn’t even thrown two touchdowns for every interception in his career.

For Wilson, the Packers have become an outlier. Their secondary has his number like no other. In five games, he has thrown eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

House was on the field for the Packers’ four interceptions in the NFC title game. He played in Jacksonville last season, but watched the Seahawks’ trip to Lambeau Field intently. House said the two games had one thing in common.

“Usually, Russ is not really playing behind that much,” House said. “The NFC championship game we were up 16-0 (at halftime), which is two possessions, almost three possessions. He’s probably not used to that. And I think when he played here last year, he was down, too. So now he’s playing from behind, doing things that he’s not used to doing.”

Indeed, the Seahawks have been one of the NFL’s best teams since Wilson was drafted. Behind a defense that annually ranks among the league’s best, Wilson has the luxury of taking fewer chances.

It’s worth noting four of Wilson’s interceptions against the Packers came after falling behind 21-3. His second pick was a first-and-5 from the Packers’ 40-yard line with 34 seconds left. With a tighter scoreboard, perhaps Wilson doesn’t risk a deep throw over the middle that Randall undercut. Maybe he settles for entering field-goal range instead.

Wilson’s set of traits are unique. There’s no other quarterback in the league like him.  

He isn't as talented, but multiple Packers cornerbacks compared Wilson's ability to extend plays outside the pocket to Aaron Rodgers, whom they face each year in camp. 

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At 6-2, Rodgers is three inches taller than Wilson. His height helps him scan the field from within the pocket. Wilson’s height isn’t ideal, but he has learned to cope playing behind taller offensive linemen.

House said Wilson is more likely to evade the pocket quicker.

“He’s smart,” House said, “when to take it down, and when to run with it. Most quarterbacks, they can get the first down by throwing it. He’s not afraid to say, ‘Hey, I see the first down, I’m going to run with it.’”

As a passer, House said Wilson is similar to New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Within the pocket, it’s often difficult for defensive backs to see him. When corners are keying the quarterback in zone coverage, House said, it can be hard to see Wilson’s release.

The difference is Brees rarely leaves the pocket. The Saints' offense is predicated on timing, coming from Brees’ quick release. The Seahawks’ offense is built on Wilson’s ability to extend plays.

While his lack of height can make him difficult to see behind his blockers, Wilson is always dangerous when he flees. Burnett said the key to beating Wilson is unceasing coverage.

“The play clock might be a little bit longer,” Burnett said, “because he’s athletic enough to extend plays. He’s capable of making all the throws. He’s proven that since his years in the league, he’s one of the top quarterbacks in the league for a reason. So you have to be sound in your technique, be good with your eyes. Because if you’re not, a guy like that will make you pay for it.”

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