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» Scramble for the Ball: With All the Fixings

An idiot's (two idiots'?) guide to Thanksgiving football, prepped and primed for the monsters-in-law who only watch these three games in a year.

25 Aug 2016

Film Room: Doug Baldwin

by Cian Fahey

Doug Baldwin hasn't changed. Doug Baldwin has always been who Doug Baldwin has always been.

The 2015 season was heralded as a breakout year for the Seattle Seahawks receiver. He caught 14 touchdowns and eclipsed 1,000 yards in a season for the first time in his career. In his previous four seasons combined, Baldwin managed just 15 touchdowns. Adding to the breakout aura of Baldwin's season was the fact that 12 of his 14 touchdowns came over the final eight games of the season. Twelve touchdowns in eight games after 17 in the previous 66? Yeah, that's different.

But like I said, Doug Baldwin hasn't changed.

In four years at Stanford, he caught just 96 total passes, including only four receptions in his junior year. That's not due to injury -- he fell into the doghouse of Jim Harbaugh, whom he later described as an excessive disciplinarian. With such modest production, it's no surprise that Baldwin went undrafted in 2011. Still, the Seattle Seahawks made Baldwin a priority undrafted free agent. They had seen enough during Baldwin's final year at Stanford, a year in which he led the Cardinal in receiving and stayed out of the head coach's doghouse, to be intrigued. They also drafted Kris Durham that year. As such, Baldwin would have to force his way onto the roster during training camp.

Baldwin made the roster and immediately made an impact. He caught 51 passes for 768 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie despite coming off the bench and catching passes from Tarvaris Jackson. After that promising start, Baldwin's production plummeted during Russell Wilson's first season a year later. That's partly because he was playing with a rookie quarterback in a run-oriented offense, but mostly because he struggled to stay healthy. A variety of injuries cost him two games and impacted him in many more. He finished his second season in the NFL with just 29 catches for 366 yards and three touchdowns.

As he had done in college, Baldwin rebounded relatively well. Now a veteran, Baldwin would prove himself to be an integral piece of the Seahawks passing game over the following two years. Golden Tate and Percy Harvin came and went, but while those two receivers were held in higher regard, it was Baldwin who remained Wilson's most trusted target. That doesn't always lead to big production, and Baldwin's production remained mediocre. His modest numbers on a team that repeatedly went to the playoffs led to doubters -- some more vocal than others.

Cris Carter, then working at ESPN, called Baldwin an "appetizer" ahead of the Seahawks' NFC Championship Game appearance in 2013. After Baldwin caught five passes for 66 yards and a touchdown in his team's Super Bowl victory over the Denver Broncos, he called Carter out and pointed to his Super Bowl ring. Carter stubbornly stuck to his stance, telling Baldwin that he should be concerned about being third- or fourth-string by the time OTAs come around.

Carter's opinion was hyperbolic and delivered spitefully, but his sentiment reflected general opinion at the time. Baldwin was just another guy in a receiving corps that didn't feature any high-quality players.

While Carter didn't appreciate Baldwin's talent, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick did. Belichick had Darrelle Revis trail Baldwin for most of their Super Bowl matchup the following season. Revis covered Baldwin for 17 qualifying snaps. Baldwin beat him on eight. He had the fourth-highest success rate against Revis that season, and he did so during the biggest game of the year. Unfortunately, Baldwin only caught one pass for 3 yards in that game, a touchdown reception where he used the official in the middle of the field to get open. On the surface it looked like Revis shut Baldwin down, but really it was his quarterback who prevented him from putting up big numbers.

Wilson and Baldwin have a great relationship when Wilson releases the ball. The problem is, Wilson doesn't always release the ball when he should. Wilson is a good quarterback, one of the best in the NFL last year, but he is also streaky. He is the most inconsistent passer amongst the good quarterbacks in the NFL. Wilson suffers from sustained bouts of hesitation that cause him to hold the ball longer than he should. It doesn't derail the offense because he has the ability to extend plays before passing or scrambling, but it does artificially deflate the production of his receivers.

As a technical master with big-play ability, Baldwin's production is hurt more than anyone else's. Baldwin would thrive in a timing offense where the ball is put in specific spots based on the coverage and it's his job to get into position on time. That is what happened last year. Like he did during the 2013 regular season, Wilson got hot last year. This time he was carrying the offense more than he ever had before. Wilson wasn't necessarily throwing the ball more accurately than before, he simply released the ball when he was supposed to with greater consistency.

Baldwin was targeted more last year than ever before. An unproportional amount of those targets came over the second half of the season. He had 31 catches in 40 targets in the season's first eight games, then caught 47 passes in 63 targets in the second half of the season. Baldwin was targeted at least six times in each of the regular season's final eight games. Twice he was targeted at least 10 times in a game, a total he never achieved in the first half of the season.

Opportunities in a passing game that was in rhythm allowed Baldwin to thrive. His 12-touchdown stretch over the second half of the year was exceptional, but also quite normal.

If you watch Baldwin's tape without valuing the ability to get into the wide space at either side of the field, you won't see much difference between now and his rookie season. Like every successful player, Baldwin has refined the edges of his skill set over the course of his career, but the foundation of his success has remained the same since he was at Stanford. The foundation of Baldwin's success is the combination of his route running and ability at the catch point. Baldwin not only runs every route (a phrase that has become cliche over the years and has largely lost its meaning), he runs every route to an expert level. He understands how to manipulate defenders with his upper body, where to plant his feet, and how to move his hips so he can sink into his breaks. His timing is precise and his awareness to find the soft spots in zone is a natural element of his play. Whether it's a comeback route against press outside or a double move from the slot against Cover-3, Baldwin will execute at a high level.

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The aspect of his route running that stands out most can be seen in the above GIF. Because of his size (5-foot-10 and 192 pounds), Baldwin is generally regarded as a possession receiver. And he is a great possession receiver, but labelling him like that is unfair because that's not all he is. Baldwin has 69 receptions of 20 or more yards in his career, and 12 have gained at least 40 yards. Only 15 receivers have more 20-plus-yard receptions than Baldwin since he entered the league. That's very impressive considering the context of his offense.

The above GIF comes from Baldwin's rookie season. A lot of Baldwin's big plays look like that one because of how he threatens defensive backs underneath. His reputation intimidates defensive backs at this point of his career, but back then he was still an unknown. Back then he had to sell the route with his timing and quickness. Baldwin sold the defensive back the slant route at the perfect moment before quickly transitioning to a sprint downfield. The defensive back had no chance once he bit on the fake.

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Defensive backs are intimidated by Baldwin at this point. There is no denying that. Intimidation isn't just about being big enough to bully defenders. It's about how you can threaten space. Baldwin's consistency working underneath creates anxiety when he enters breaks. Defensive backs who line up deeper off the line of scrimmage particularly struggle. That depth they give up is supposed to allow them to keep Baldwin in sight. By backing off they hope to keep to close on any short routes without giving up the opportunity to go deep. The problem with that approach is that Baldwin can more easily manipulate defenders when they are that far away because he knows they have to be proactive against underneath routes.

In the above GIF, Jerraud Powers is the cornerback trying to cover Baldwin. Powers commits his hips and shoulders forward at a point in the play when Baldwin has only lengthened his stride infield. By lengthening his stride, Baldwin is able to maintain his center of gravity and keep his hips focused forward. He turns his head infield, but his body as a whole hasn't committed to the in-breaking route. Powers has to react, but as soon as he does he is taken out of the play. Baldwin's ability to push off of his right foot and accelerate downfield completely negates the cornerback's coverage. Powers will only come back into the play if Wilson gives him an opportunity to recover. He doesn't.

Wilson's pass is slightly underthrown, but Baldwin has beaten Powers so badly that there is a huge cushion of separation acting as a margin of error for the quarterback.

Baldwin is known for his confrontational personality off the field. A lot of players in the NFL adopt that mindset by creating slights or doubts from others that never truly existed. Baldwin has legitimate reasons for his persecution complex. He has been forced to fight for his career since it began in the NFL's de facto development league. Baldwin's talk off the field isn't just bluster. His style of play on the field mirrors the mindset he preaches about off of the field.

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On the field, his toughness is rivaled only by his tenacity. Any receiver who wishes to effectively work the middle of the field has to show off toughness at the catch point. A receiver who fears contact or prioritizes his own preservation when working the middle of the field is a receiver who will repeatedly leave yards, first downs, and touchdowns on the field. Baldwin understands that. He understands that if his quarterback throws him into contact it's his responsibility to make a play on the ball regardless. He understands that he has to adopt the same mindset and aggressiveness on the tough receptions that he does on the easy ones. Alligator arms, flinching, and half-hearted efforts aren't part of his DNA.

When Baldwin contorts his body in the air, he does it for the betterment of the play. He is giving himself the best possible opportunity to protect the football against contact, to compete for the ball when it's not his, or to keep his feet inbounds when space gets tight. The only time Baldwin will make a catch more difficult than it needs to be is when he is setting himself up to gain yards after the catch.

In the above GIF, you can see Baldwin working across the field on a deep crossing route. Charlie Whitehurst (it was a long season in Seattle in 2011) throws a catchable pass in Baldwin's direction, but it's far from a perfect pass. Baldwin has to reach back for the ball, turning his whole body in the process. This action exposes him to a hit from the arriving free safety, Kenny Phillips. Philips was a defensive back who was not only much bigger than Baldwin but also someone who was close to his peak athleticism at this stage of his career. He could hit too. Fortunately for Baldwin, Philips doesn't have the perfect position to blow the receiver up on this play, but the safety still delivers a significant hit that Baldwin has to absorb. Because Baldwin focuses on securing the football by keeping it tight to his chest with two hands wrapped around it, he is able to maintain possession to the ground.

That play didn't feature any YAC and Baldwin never had a chance to set himself up for YAC because of the throw.

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This play against Washington also comes from Baldwin's rookie season, but it shows off his ability to create YAC at the catch point. Viewing this play in the context of Baldwin's career, it's easy to understand his thought process. However, if you viewed this play in a vacuum, you might be inclined to criticize the receiver for his actions. Typically you don't want a receiver to leave his feet unless he absolutely has to, and hands-catching is preferable to body-catching. Body-catching isn't necessarily a bad thing if done right and in the right situations. On this play, Baldwin leaves his feet so he can catch the ball into his stomach. This exposes him to a hit from the arriving safety, but he uses his right leg to negate that hit. Had Baldwin stayed on his feet and caught the ball with his hands or into his chest, the safety would still have been able to run through him because of the timing of the play.

By leaving his feet and contorting his body, Baldwin sits into the safety's hit before spinning off of the contact with his right foot. His arched right foot allows him to pivot while his left foot plants into the ground. This keeps Baldwin upright while the ball is protected into his stomach. Had Baldwin not used his right leg the way he did on this play, he would have exposed more of his midsection to punishment.

Everything Baldwin did on this play allowed him to maintain his balance, secure the catch, avoid punishment, and ultimately turn away from the defense for YAC.

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Spatial awareness is vital for survival as a receiver. It's less important if you primarily work outside the numbers, but when you're infield you have to be aware of where the linebackers and safeties are. Spatial awareness helps you understand how to approach different coverages before the ball is delivered, and to avoid getting blown up after catching the ball. In the above play from 2015, Baldwin shows off his willingness to extend his body so he can pluck the ball out of the air. However, it's what he does after the play that really stands out. We tend to marvel at the athleticism of the long, strong receivers who can run 40 yards downfield in 4.4 seconds, but then treat the smaller receivers who work more horizontally as less impressive athletes. Maybe it's because it's more subtle athleticism or maybe it's because it looks more relatable for those of us who sit at home watching on Sundays. Regardless, a lot of what Baldwin does is athletically impressive even if the foundation of his skill set is technical.

In the above play, Baldwin pulls the ball back from slightly behind his head while he is in the air. As soon as he has done this, he has to recognize the cornerback coming from a slight angle to his left. The cornerback is in position to level Baldwin if he lines it up properly. Baldwin has to control his momentum to get off that collision course.

Baldwin's left foot hits the ground first. He uses that foot to push back towards his line of scrimmage, conceding yards from the start. Baldwin does that so he can avoid the brunt of the defender's tackle attempt before bracing to brush off the contact that inevitably arrives. That slight movement alters the tackle situation and gives him a chance to stay upright. The receiver's balance allows him to turn upfield as he arcs towards the sideline. From there he accelerates to try and convert the third-and-31 play. Baldwin dives to try and convert the play but is stopped just short.

Rarely does Baldwin drop passes. A big reason for that is his toughness and his understanding of how to approach the catch point. It's also as simple as having soft hands. Baldwin's hands and feet work in concert with each other, meaning he instinctually functions in tight spaces.

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He has the ability to lean out over the sideline to catch wide passes and he can toe-tap or drag his feet when moving at speed. Baldwin tracks the ball brilliantly, making over-the-shoulder receptions routine regardless of what kind of coverage he is facing. The above GIF highlights one of his touchdown receptions from last year when he watches the ball into his hands while maintaining precision with his feet. Baldwin has to do both together because of where he is on the field. This ball arrived in a perfect spot at a perfect time. That's not always the case, but when the timing or accuracy is slightly off Baldwin will recognize it early to adjust how he attacks the ball in the air. Precision is a huge element of being a receiver. Baldwin shows off precision at every level of the field no matter the situation in which he finds himself.

Over recent years, the Seahawks have attempted to infuse their offense with explosiveness. Paul Richardson and Tyler Lockett are two of the fastest receivers in the league right now. Both are still young and were recent draft picks. C.J. Prosise is expected to be the team's receiving back as a rookie. Prosise is a converted wide receiver who had some of the more impressive big-play runs in college football for Notre Dame last year. Who knows if Jimmy Graham will be fully healthy or effective again when he returns to the field, but before he injured his knee he was the best pure deep-threat tight end in the NFL (though admittedly the Seahawks didn't seem to realize that based on how they used him last year).

As previously noted, Baldwin is an effective big-play threat because of his route running. That doesn't mean he's not an impressive athlete.

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During his debut for the Seahawks back in 2011, Baldwin scored a 55-yard touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers. The reception itself wasn't technically demanding. He ran a simple slant route and was left open by the defense. Once Baldwin caught the ball he only had to turn upfield and run away from the defenders around him to score the touchdown. Although he had a momentum advantage against the safety and cornerback in position to pursue him, Baldwin's speed was still apparent. From 46 yards out, Baldwin straightens up and accelerates. From here he comfortably pulls away from the cornerback and forces the safety to slow up before he even reaches the end zone.

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Fast-forward four years to the Seahawks' regular season matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers last year and Baldwin is still making similar plays. When he catches the ball on this occasion, the arriving safety has an angle to bring him down immediately. Baldwin accelerates out of the safety's crosshairs and escapes to the sideline. He then fends off the attention of the recovering cornerback before easily pulling away down the sideline for a score.

All in all, that play was made to look much easier than it actually was.

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Baldwin's athleticism and awareness can be seen in his routes and at the catch point, and it also shows when he has the ball in his hands. The above plays, one from his rookie season and one from last year, highlight his elusiveness on quick throws underneath. It's coincidental that both came against the 49ers. Baldwin's 408 yards after the catch ranked 11th amongst receivers last year

Like they have throughout his career, opportunities determined Baldwin's output in 2015. He has always been a good receiver, a very good receiver really, but 2015 was the first year he truly got the chance to show it off. Everything he was doing during that 12-touchdown stretch, he has been doing consistently each year since his career began. Baldwin understands that last year may be a blip. He understands that he is inherently reliant on his situation because of the position he plays, and his situation may be rare in today's NFL.

"We're always going to be a run-first offense," Baldwin said to NFL Network during the offseason. "That's the way Pete Caroll designed it...We're gonna run the ball first."

Recently he revisited this topic. "It is a mindset you have to have when you come to the Seattle Seahawks," he told the Associated Press. "When you come to any run-first offense you have to realize you are going to be called upon to block, more so than scoring touchdowns."

Baldwin can afford to not be concerned with his output at this point of his career. He signed a four-year contract extension with the Seahawks during the offseason. That extension showed what the Seahawks think of him regardless of his production. It made him the seventh-highest paid receiver in the league.

Seahawks general manager John Schneider won't be concerned with Baldwin living up to that deal. He recognizes who his starting receiver is. Schneider described Baldwin as "smart, tough, competitive, and [a] confident football player." He also specifically highlighted Baldwin's "ability to track the ball, go up and get it, and take it away/secure it in tight areas." He said those things back in 2011, when Baldwin was a free agent and the Seahawks were his suitors.

You see, Doug Baldwin hasn't changed. He's never needed to.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 25 Aug 2016

6 comments, Last at 27 Aug 2016, 8:28am by nickd46

Comments

2
by theslothook :: Thu, 08/25/2016 - 2:40pm

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1
by theslothook :: Thu, 08/25/2016 - 2:40pm

At the beginning of the Seahawks dramatic ascension(I find this team utterly fascinating) - the offensive line was a strength while the receiving core was overall putrid. As time has passed, the o line has become a disaster, but the receiving core imo looks fantastic. I love baldwin. I love tyler lockett too. I think even Kearse is a nice third weapon. In theory, Jimmy Graham is a special talent at tight end(though clearly miscast in this offense).

I even like Russel Wilson. Those who have read my comments know how hard I was on Wilson early. But this season made me really come around. He's still not the prototypical qb that I prefer; but his ability to avoid turnovers, his deep ball, timely scrambling, and improved down the field accuracy have all made me come around.

To me - the hawks, cardinals, patriots, and packers are the most well rounded talented teams in football, with pitt lurking as a dangerous out.

3
by jtr :: Thu, 08/25/2016 - 3:04pm

The 49ers sure look friggin hapless in that last gif. Number 47 manages to tackle two of his own linebackers on that play. Somewhere, Justin Smith and Patrick Willis were shaking their heads solemnly before finishing their beers.

4
by bubqr :: Thu, 08/25/2016 - 3:17pm

Very good breakdown Cian - great read.

6
by nickd46 :: Sat, 08/27/2016 - 8:28am

Seconded, great breakdown, and a really nice selection of the less obvious skills of a great receiver.

5
by Joe Pancake :: Thu, 08/25/2016 - 5:04pm

Great to see Baldwin finally get some credit. I love this analysis, and it doesn't even show my two favorite Baldwin receptions -- his clutch first down in the fourth quarter of a 2013 regular season game against the Texans, and his even clutcher first down in OT of the 2014 NFC Championship Game. (You can find clips at NFL.com -- FO's spam filter isn't letting my links by.)

I heard him interviewed about the latter, and he said that he knew the DB was sitting on the to-the-sticks comeback route, so he gave him a little shimmy before blowing by him. You can completely see this in the play.