Any Given Sunday
The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Seahawks over Steelers

D.K. Metcalf
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

The Seahawks traded up in the second round to land track-star athlete D.K. Metcalf. Metcalf was a polarizing prospect: he's 6-foot-3, 228 pounds, and ran a 4.33 40-yard dash. Those are traits that do not line up together very often, and when they do, they go in the first 10 picks of the draft. Calvin Johnson. Julio Jones. Andre Johnson. Metcalf has that kind of body and physical talent to work with. He was in the 90th or higher percentile in basically every combine measurement that didn't measure agility.

But ... that agility. The reason Metcalf didn't go in the first round is because he ran a 7.38 3-cone drill, which put him in the second percentile. He was someone who could only win one way, and dinged for not being a complete player. Players with that kind of physical profile that do slide past the first round tend to come from oddball offenses with no tape of them winning in an NFL system (Demaryius Thomas, Stephen Hill) or have off-field concerns (Brandon Marshall).

The early returns on Metcalf have been mixed. He's not providing very much separation at all: per NFL Next Gen Stats, his 1.7 average yards of separation is one of the eight lowest rates in the NFL among qualifying receivers. He actually has the highest catch rate of any of those low-separation players outside of Devin Funchess, who didn't play in Week 2.

What the Seahawks did in Week 2 was look at Pittsburgh's starting corner Steven Nelson, at 5-foot-11, 194 pounds, and say "we're going to throw deep on this guy."

Almost every one of those targets to the left over 10 yards was with Metcalf. Tyler Lockett had one. As you can see, Metcalf was inconsistent. He did win them the game with his deep touchdown catch:

On Metcalf's touchdown catch, he was singled up in the slot on a safety, Terrell Edmunds. He had the whole sideline to use. Pittsburgh only had one deep safety, and cheated that safety towards Lockett on the other side of the field. It's not bad coverage by Edmunds all things considered. It's also not a clean catch for Metcalf. But it's an example of a play where Seattle was able to put both receiver and quarterback in a good situation.

Through Week 2, only Keenan Allen and Robby Anderson have more targeted air yards as a share of their team's total than Metcalf. He's a fascinating question mark as we try to play through the scenarios of this season, because when Metcalf does what he can do at his best, he can beat anybody. He's matchup-proof on pure physicality, and if he goes up and wins a ball against a corner, there's not much a defensive coordinator can do about that.

Is he going to develop actual consistency? Is he going to be enough of a deep threat to be able to get separations on curls? A lot of Seattle's ceiling this year is riding on the answer to that question.

Where the Game Swung

The Seahawks fell down to 34.2% GWC after their first possession in the third quarter, but by the end of that quarter, they were at 76.0%.

One of the best decisions of the week, per EdjSports' model, was the Seahawks choice to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Pittsburgh 33 following the two-minute warning. They were up two, and could have kicked a field goal to make it a five-point game. However, once they got the yard, the game was over. That decision alone raised their GWC 21.1%.

By the VOA

PIT 9.0% 27.2% 2.4% -15.9%
SEA 31.2% -2.2% -1.5% 32.0%

Wasn't much to this game, obviously. Seattle's defense looked so good in VOA's eyes despite the point totals because two of Pittsburgh's three touchdown drives were less than 22 yards thanks to Seahawks fumbles.

A Post-Roethlisberger World

It had to happen sooner or later -- Ben Roethlisberger showed some fraying at the edges last year, and didn't look good in the opener against New England. He has missed games in four of the last five seasons and has continued to throw picks at an early-2010s level even as passing offenses have become more efficient overall. Now that Roethlisberger will miss the rest of this season, it opens up an opportunity to get a glimpse of FO Top 25 Prospect Mason Rudolph, who slipped to the third round in the 2018 NFL draft despite several analysts thinking higher than that of him. Here's what we wrote about him at publication time:

Rudolph threw for 13,618 yards and 92 touchdowns at Oklahoma State, giving him plenty of clout with scouts as a potential first-round pick. Instead, he slid to the third, where the Steelers picked him as a potential future replacement for aging quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. QBASE, our quarterback projection system, gave Rudolph a middling projection. He ate up a lot of cream-puff defenses with the Cowboys in the Big 12, and that -- combined with the third-round projection -- is why his statistics didn't translate to greatness in QBASE.

Rudolph had a somewhat uneven 2018 preseason, throwing a pick-six and completing just 54.5% of his passes. However, he did average 7.2 yards per attempt. It's easy to see why the Steelers valued him in comparing him to Roethlisberger. Rudolph has great accuracy in the vertical passing game, and he is more than willing to stand in the pocket and take shots to complete those deep balls. If he can develop short-game accuracy and better pocket awareness under pressure, he has the tools to be an NFL starter. If he stalls out, well, Zach Mettenberger had plenty of fans, too.

Rudolph earned some praise in minicamp for looking more comfortable in the offense in his second year, and he took a lot of first-team reps as Roethlisberger took it easy. This is a big offseason for Rudolph, and even the preseason games are going to matter a lot. The early returns look good, and Roethlisberger's interception rate reached a point last season where it's not totally impossible to see the Steelers ready to hand over the reins in the near future.

This preseason, Rudolph played a lot better than he did in 2018, opening the way for him to be named the No. 2 behind Roethlisberger by clearly beating out Joshua Dobbs. Dobbs got traded to Jacksonville last week. Rudolph competed 65.1% of his passes for 8.6 yards per attempt, and threw four touchdowns. In 2018, he had a 54.5% preseason completion rate, with 7.2 yards per attempt and ate seven sacks.

One thing that has dogged the Steelers this year is that, in a post-Antonio Brown world, they're not really settled on a depth chart that makes sense at receiver yet. Donte Moncrief has been soaking up snaps and dropping balls left and right, and was the target on an egregious pop-up drop that turned into Rudolph's first career pick.

After Rudolph settled down, he executed a mostly short-pass heavy game plan well. He scrambled out of the pocket once to pick up a first down. He had a nifty throw out of pressure for Vance McDonald's first touchdown:

Rudolph has some downsides, and his pocket management looks strange at this point. It's not mechanically poor, but his long limbs leave it looking herky-jerky. He ends up looking like a robot that shuts down to cycle power every 10 frames, then reboots five frames later.

It's clear that the Steelers are going to be hard-pressed to make a charge for an AFC playoff spot as we projected this offseason. They're down to a 14.5% chance in our latest projections, and are looking at a potential juggernaut in Baltimore ahead of them. But, as usual, it's not like the AFC has really cemented itself with any other dominant wild-card contenders. The Bills are in the best shape at 2-0, and they start Josh Allen. The Browns didn't cover themselves in glory the last two weeks. The Colts lost Andrew Luck. The Chargers have already had their foundation destroyed by injuries. The only teams that have separated themselves from the pack this point are Kansas City, New England, and Baltimore.

So don't discount Pittsburgh's chances quite so fast. They still have a lot of the good foundation that made them a DVOA favorite to make a playoff push. Rudolph doesn't even need to be Roethlisberger for this team to make the playoffs. They just need to play smart and get better receiver play -- hopefully with more snaps from Diontae Johnson and fewer from Dropcrief they can get there. Oh, and just as I finished writing this, they acquired this Minkah Fitzpatrick fella. He sounds like he's pretty good too.

Either way, we're about to learn a lot about what the Steelers will look like in 2020 over these next four months.


7 comments, Last at 19 Sep 2019, 11:48am

1 Quick passing

One thing not mentioned in the article was the Seahawks Oline getting torn up in pass protection early. They then shifted to a very quick passing game, rare for Wilson, and started shredding the Pit D. No sacks in the last 37 min after giving up 4 in the first 23 min.

According to Next Gen stats, Wilson had a time to throw rate at 1.89 secs. quickest by any QB since 2016. Wilson average TTT in 2018 was 3.02 secs. This also contrasts with Vince's Quick Reads graph that showed Wilson as a 'bystander' QB. Overall a good adjustment by the Seahawks coaching staff and something fans have been wanting them to do for awhile.

2 Yeah

In reply to by tictoc

Yeah, I came to say the same thing.

The Seahawks' move to the quick passing game was very much driven by Pittsburgh's defensive gameplan, which was to blitz early and often.  The Seahawks then moved to the quick passing game and ate up the Steelers' defense.  Particularly in the 3rd and 4th quarters.

Check this article for a set of cutups of the Seahawks offensive line on every play of the game.  Later in the game you can see Wilson just firing the ball out at the top of his drops.  Three steps and the ball is out, over and over again.

It's a very uncharacteristic adjustment for the Pete Carroll Seahawks.

3 A bit of a quibble

But in an article that's supposed to be about a game that was played last week we get to read mostly about the future of the Steelers passing game? I mean you could at least talk about Rudolph's performance in this game for more than four sentences. And as two other posters have pointed out there was a lot more of interest in how this game played out than D.K. Metcalf.

4 Maybe mention Uncle Will

Will Dissly. The tight end who caught two touchdowns a year removed from a devastating patellar injury that cut short a promising rookie campaign. Five catches on five targets as the Seahawks switched to an unusual (for them) quick passing attack that carved up the Steelers.

Seems like he deserves to have his name appear in a column dedicated to discussing the game last week.

5 yeah, this installment didn't really meet standards

Sorry Rivers, but please discuss the game more next time. There was so much more to it than most of Wilson's drops came targeting DK and Rudolph's history as a back up. How about the fact that Seattle's oline ranks 31st in pass pro per PFF yet Wilson walks out with an 82.9% completion avg on 35 throws and 300 yards. Or how about Dissly? Or how Pittsburgh's offense really hasn't been able to get untracked despite putting up 26 points yesterday?

6 Seattle is pretty much the best fit for Metcalf

because of Russell Wilson. Maybe Metcalf doesn't separate much, but he has a quarterback who is precise. Look at the three touchdowns to Dissly and Metcalf: all three of them were precise, giving the defender no chance.

7 "But ... that agility. "If…

"So don't discount Pittsburgh's chances quite so fast."

I won't but this team is still coached by Mike Tomlin. We will see what Mike Tomlin is made of now that his HOF QB is out. Especially when James Conner inevitably gets injured due to over-use, which is also normal for running backs under Mike Tomlin.