I’m not sure if people around here have noticed but the Seahawks passing game looked pretty good on Sunday. It also looked half-decent against Carolina. Russell Wilson has looked downright competent over the last two games, and for a team that already has an elite rushing attack, and an elite defense that qualifies as good news. What is causing this development? Is Russell Wilson starting to adjust to the NFL? Probably. Is the O-line doing a better job of protecting their quarterback? Sure. Have the Seahawks benefited from facing some suspect pass defenses? Definitely. However, I think there is one thing that is going largely unnoticed over the past two games: The reintroduction of Doug Baldwin into Seattle’s offense.
It’s shouldn’t be easy to forget the kind of rookie season Baldwin had in 2011 but it seems like it has faded to the background given all the other compelling story lines surrounding the Seahawks this year. Normally, when a rookie breaks out, pundits are scrambling to find out whether he can repeat that performance in year two; but a quarterback controversy and a rookie QB are dominant talking points with the power to obscure all others. That being said, Doug Baldwin broke out last year and he broke out in a big way. In a very questionable passing offense, led by a very questionable quarterback, Baldwin caught 51 passes for 788 yards and 4 touchdowns. Those numbers were better than any other Seahawks WR by 14 receptions 304 yards and one touchdown. The undrafted free agent posted a robust 15.5 yards per catch, a number better than Sidney Rice’s. 19 of his 50 catches went for 20+ yards and 40 of them went for 1st downs. The advanced stats liked Baldwin even more. His DYAR (or defense adjusted yards above replacement) sat at 174 and number that put him right between Torrey Smith and Julio Jones. His DVOA (Defense-adjusted value above average) was 14.2 making Doug Baldwin 114.2% as good as your average wide out. Now that I’m done with my number binge (sorry I can’t help myself sometimes) the take is this: Doug Baldwin was good last year, very, very good. Too good to forget about.
Assuming we have established that Baldwin was excellent in 2011 it bears wondering why he was used so little to begin the season. Injuries were a huge factor. Baldwin missed the preseason, and his opportunity to develop chemistry with Russell Wilson, with a hamstring issue. He broke teeth trying to make a catch at Arizona. He had a shoulder issue that kept him out of Green Bay, the only game he actually missed. In his first 3 games Baldwin had a total of 4 catches and 23 yards. Last year he averaged 3.2 catches for 49.3 yards a game. That’s a pretty big difference in utilization. While Baldwin’s role in the offense was diminished the passing game failed to gain much traction. In the four games before Baldwin started to show life against Carolina, Russell Wilson went 60 for 100 passing with 594 yards, 4 touchdowns and 4 interceptions leading to a grim passer rating of 73.5.
Then something happened. In week 5 Doug Baldwin caught 3 passes for 37 yards. Not an awe-inspiring line by any means, but a start. Not too far from what he averaged in 2011. Last week we saw Baldwin go for 74 yards and a touchdown. The total for the two weeks is 5 catches 111 yards and a touchdown or an average of 2.5 catches and 55.5 yards per game. Those numbers look a lot like Baldwin’s rookie numbers. Perhaps more revealing is how Russell Wilson’s numbers have looked over the last two games. Mr. Wilson has gone 35 for 52 with 514 yards, 4 touchdowns, 2 interceptions and an excellent 108.9 passer rating. That’s a fairly big change. Two games is a small sample size, but this offense is beginning to move the ball through the air. I realize that Baldwin is not responsible for all of this improvement, he’s only one man. I do think that he has been a factor.
Doug Baldwin is back. He may not be a superstar, or even the kind of guy you would want to pick up for your fantasy team. What Doug Baldwin does is help this offense move the chains by exploiting advantageous matchups out of the slot. If defenses insist on trying to take away Rice down the field, Baldwin can be there for the intermediate and short routes. The idea of a “safety blanket” for a young quarterback is one that NFL commentators often touch on and I can’t think of a better safety valve than a weapon like Baldwin in the slot. He is also the rare slot receiver that can also make plays down the field as he showed against the Patriots on Sunday. Baldwin is not a cure-all for what ails the Seahawks passing game, but he is demonstrating that he can be a major asset. He is starting to show up over the last two games and so is the Seahawks offense and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.