Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is an early NFL MVP candidate, leading his team to a 5-1 record with 14 touchdowns and no interceptions.
As defenses have blitzed Wilson in an attempt to make him uncomfortable, he’s taken advantage of that aggressiveness better than any quarterback in the NFL. According to ESPN, Wilson’s passer rating when facing five or more pass rushers is 141.8, which ranks first in the league.
It’s the Steph Curry Conundrum, according to defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale.
“You can say ‘Keep him in the pocket,’” Martindale said Wednesday, “and there are times that you think you have him in the pocket and he shakes you and he gets out of the pocket. He’s extended plays better than he ever has. It’s been mentioned before he’s playing at an MVP level and I agree with that.
“It’s sort of like playing against Steph Curry in basketball, if you will. You can pick him up from halfcourt and he’s going to try to drive by, you know, when you’re saying, ‘Keep him in the pocket.’ Or you can slack off and he’s going to pull up and hit a [3-pointer]. He’s just playing at a really high level and I don’t argue with anybody that’s saying he’s playing at an MVP level.”
On Sunday, the Ravens, the league’s most blitz-heavy team, will attempt to apply a “halfcourt press” and disrupt Wilson, the NFL’s equivalent of Curry (according to Martindale).
Like the Golden State Warriors star, Wilson has eased concerns over his height (5-feet-11) and size (215 pounds) since entering the league in 2012, becoming one of the NFL’s most efficient passers and savviest runners.
The Ravens have faced quarterbacks this season in a similar mold, such as Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Arizona’s Kyler Murray, but none playing as well as Wilson.
The five-time Pro Bowler is on pace to set career numbers for single-season yards, touchdowns and passer rating.
The most impressive aspect of Wilson’s play so far is the lack of dropoff in production when facing pressure.
He’s beating defenses in multiple ways, with the capability to stay in the pocket and deliver pinpoint passes to covered receivers, or roll out of the pocket and find receivers ad-libbing across the field.
If all else fails, Wilson is one of the best in the league in locating open spaces in the field to scramble before adroitly running out of bounds or sliding out of harm’s way.
“Everything is predicated off the run game, and we also know that Russell can extend plays,” safety Earl Thomas III said. “That’s when he kind of works his magic — when he plays backyard football. And his receivers do a great job of just melding with him and creating space, boxing guys out and creating leverages and coming up with big catches.”
Martindale said the defense’s decision to blitz varies from game to game, but the Ravens have a long-held philosophy on pressuring quarterbacks, none more evident than their tendencies in 2019.
In 2018, the Ravens blitzed more than any defense in the NFL, on 39.6% of dropbacks, according to Pro Football Reference. This season, trying to mask an injury-riddled secondary, the Ravens have increased their blitz rate to a league-high 49.3% of dropbacks.
The problem with this high rate is the disproportionate amount of pressure that has been applied, despite bringing extra rushers on almost half of opposing quarterback dropbacks.
The Ravens rank in the bottom half of the league in quarterback hurries (15), pressures (51) and sacks (11).
There’s the possibility Wilson faces the Ravens defense without two starting offensive linemen. Tackle Duane Brown and guard D.J. Fluker didn’t play in the team’s road win against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday and neither lineman practiced Wednesday.
The addition of cornerback Marcus Peters — who is expected to make his Ravens debut Sunday — could also help force Wilson, and future quarterbacks, to hold the ball a tad bit longer.
But through his eight-year career, and more than ever this season, Wilson has shown the ability to move the ball down the field, whether he’s playing without key starters or under duress.
“I think he’s the only guy that I’ve seen do it pretty effortlessly like [quarterback] Lamar [Jackson] does,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said of Wilson’s mobility. “We always say we don’t want to play Lamar, so I guess we’re kind of playing a polished-up, couple-years-down-the-line Lamar. So, we definitely better get ready, because he definitely can do it all.
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“Defensively, I’m sitting there watching Lamar, and I’m like, ‘Oh, wow.’ So, I’m hoping that’s not happening when I’m out there on defense with him [Russell Wilson]. But Russell, he really can get it done. I’m pretty excited. I’ve been doing this for a while. Just to be on the same field against him ... I’m not really saying I’m a fan, but he’s Russell Wilson. He’s a pretty big deal.”