How Russell Wilson Can Avoid a Sophomore Slump in 2013-14

Tyson Langland@TysonNFLNFC West Lead WriterJuly 26, 2013

Dec 9, 2012; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) points downfield before throwing a pass during the 1st quarter against the Arizona Cardinals at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

When a first-year quarterback dominates the competition during his rookie season, expectations are heightened in Year 2. Some quarterbacks fail to live up to the added pressures, while others excel and take their game to a whole new level. 

In recent years, second-year quarterbacks have been doing everything in their power to debunk the idea of a sophomore slump. 

Carolina Panthers signal-caller Cam Newton improved mightily from Year 1 to Year 2. He finished the 2012 season with five fewer interceptions than in 2011, his quarterback rating was 1.7 points higher and his yards per pass attempt was higher as well.

Another player that bettered his play during his second season was Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. While leading Cincinnati to its second-straight playoff appearance in as many years, Dalton proved to be a more accurate passer, he threw for more yards, more touchdowns and his quarterback rating jumped seven points from Year 1 to Year 2. 

Moreover, both players entered into a very elite club at the end of last season. According to Scott Kacsmar of Bleacher Report, only 30 quarterbacks in NFL history have thrown for more than 3,000 yards in their second year. Which means Newton and Dalton should be proud to call themselves members of such a niche group.

Heading into 2013, all eyes will be on the rookie class of 2012. Quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson stole the show a season ago. All three players led their respective teams to the playoffs, and all three players threw for at least 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Prior to the start of the 2012 season, NFL analysts predicted big things from Luck and RGIII based on their draft status. However, there were few who believed in the 5'11" third-round pick out of Wisconsin. His unexpected rise to superstardom had plenty of people proceeding with caution.

Even after he proved his naysayers wrong in Year 1, there is still work to be done in Year 2. Wilson needs to continuously get better on a weekly basis so he can put any chatter of a sophomore slump to rest.

Let's take a look at what the Pro Bowl quarterback needs to do to avoid a downward spiral in 2013.

The first thing Wilson needs to do is build on his strengths from last season.

Undoubtedly, his two most valuable assets are his arm strength and accuracy. Based on Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) in-depth statistical database, Wilson was the fifth-best deep passing quarterback in the game last year. 

He attempted 64 passes that traveled 20 yards or more downfield. 28 of those 64 attempts were completed, while nine of the 28 completions went for touchdowns. Additionally, 16.3 percent of Wilson's total attempts on the season were on deep throws. Only Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had a higher percentage at the end of the regular season.

Some of Wilson's most memorable downfield throws were not long passes that resulted in six points. A majority of his eye-opening tosses from a year ago were on deep-out patterns. The deep out is considered to be a trademark throw in the NFL. 

It's a trademark throw because it requires precise timing and spot-on accuracy. Also, the quarterback has to anticipate the wide receiver's break toward the sideline. Wilson abused the Washington Redskins in the playoffs last year when he pushed the ball down the field on what seemed like every offensive possession.

On this play, the Seahawks' offense deployed three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back. Right wide receiver Golden Tate ran a go route, slot wide receiver Sidney Rice ran a very deep out route and Doug Baldwin ran a shorter out route underneath the coverage.

As soon as Rice broke open, he became Wilson's No. 1 target. At the time, the only problem was it was going to take an unbelievable throw to hit Rice along the right sideline. The ball would have to travel 26 yards through the air, and it would have to be two or three yards out in front of Rice.

Coincidentally enough, the throw landed right on the money, and Rice hauled in the grab for a 27-yard gain. As you can see in the image below, the University of South Carolina product made an outstanding catch to ensure the play was a success.

The throw on that particular deep-out to Rice was as textbook as it gets. There are only a handful of quarterbacks in the NFL who can consistently make that throw. Even though Wilson made the play look effortless, his arm strength and accuracy were on full display.

Aside from his big arm, the second-most-dangerous weapon in Wilson's arsenal is his ability to escape danger. Time after time, the 206-pound quarterback would extend plays by eluding defenders. This, in turn, allowed plays to break down and further develop. 

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Wilson held onto the ball longer than any quarterback in the NFL. On 476 drop backs, his average time to throw was 3.35 seconds, his average time to a sack was 4.18 seconds and his average time until he scrambled was 5.76 seconds.

There were countless accounts of Wilson extending plays and avoiding pressure over the course of the season. But none was more mesmerizing than his six-yard run against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday Night Football.

Yes, he only picked up six yards on the play, yet his ability to anticipate pressure from every which way is absurd. Even minimal outcomes help keep the chains moving. Hitting a home run on every play isn't the name of the game in the NFL. Sustaining drives and winning the time of possession battle helps teams sway the outcome in their favor.

Wilson's strengths definitely outweigh his weaknesses; however, he's not immune to a shaky area of play. Obviously his height is no longer an issue, but he does struggle when there is "trash" at his feet. When he's unable to find a throwing lane or escape defenders in the pocket, he often trusts his arm too much and throws off his back foot or zips a less accurate pass into double coverage.

This shortcoming was on full display against the 49ers in San Francisco.

On this 2nd-and-long play call, Seattle sent two wide receivers out on routes. The Niners defense rushed five to counter the Seahawks max protection blocking scheme. Three down linemen and both inside linebackers attacked Wilson after the ball was snapped.  

The blitz was well executed; NaVorro Bowman beat his man clean and laid a nasty hit on Wilson. Bowman's speed forced Wilson into a hurried throw. You can tell the throw is rushed because the rookie quarterback was never able to step into it.

Wilson was determined to get the throw off, which is why the play resulted in an interception. Instead of throwing into double coverage and getting picked off, he would have been better off taking the sack or throwing the ball away.

Luckily, teaching a quarterback to throw the ball away is one of the easier bad habits to fix. To Wilson's credit, he made major strides in this area as the season pressed on. Towards the end of the season, he became more and more aware of his surroundings. He stopped trying to do more than he had to and let the game come to him. In turn, that's ultimately what that maturation process is all about.

In addition to self-maturation, one has to think offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell helped Wilson grow as well. Over the course of the final eight games, Bevell took Wilson’s handcuffs off. The play-calling was more creative, and it played to Wilson's strengths. 

In my opinion, an even more expansive playbook in 2013 will be one of the most important factors in helping Wilson avoid the abominable sophomore slump. Fans and media members alike often forget that good coaching is just as significant as individual improvement.

General manager John Schneider has put Wilson in a position to succeed. With the addition of wide receiver Percy Harvin, Seattle has a plethora of offensive weapons. The defensive side of the ball is reloaded thanks in large part to two new pass-rushers (Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett) on the edge. 

There's no excuse as to why Wilson shouldn't have a problem avoiding a down year in 2013. If he continues to make corrections to his game and build on his strengths, the Seahawks could be staring down their first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history.


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