RENTON — The last time Russell Wilson played like he was pushing to be included in the talk for MVP, he dissected the New Orleans Saints with one of the best performances of his career.
Since that December night, Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks scuffled toward the conclusion of the season, raising concerns that a stumbling offense could leave them vulnerable as the playoffs arrive.
“We weren’t able to stay at the same level of production that we had maybe prior to that, but you’ll see,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “Hopefully, we can play like we want to, which is to play a really good balanced attack and do the things we like to do in the running game, and play off of that. We’re feeling pretty good about it, we’re feeling like we know where we are.”
At the heart of re-igniting the offense is getting Wilson closer to the passer he was during the middle part of the season. For four weeks in the middle third of the season, Wilson could not have played much better. He was efficient with his passes, capitalized on scoring opportunities, avoided sacks and took smart chances downfield.
And then came the final stretch, facing four of the best defenses in the NFL, when Wilson looked mortal. He held the ball too long. His efficiency dipped. He missed open receivers and the Seahawks struggled to sustain drives and capitalize in the red zone.
Those final four games have created some alarm as New Orleans returns Saturday for the NFC divisional playoff game.
“I think there are a couple of areas we can continue to improve. Continue to be a guy that is relentless in the red zone to get the ball to our playmakers,” Wilson said. “That’s the biggest thing to find the right guy at the right time.”
It’s not all on Wilson, but he certainly swooned in the final month. The four games prior, capped with his Dec. 2 game against the Saints where he threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns in Seattle’s 34-7 win, Wilson was playing at his peak. During that four game stretch — against Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Minnesota and New Orleans — Wilson completed 73 percent of his passes, averaged 261 yards passing, 10.44 yards per pass, nine touchdowns and a passer rating of 128.1.
It was the best four-game stretch of Wilson’s young career.
But then the slump arrived. Wilson threw for more than 200 yards only once. He had just four touchdowns and three interceptions, and was sacked 14 times. His yards per attempt dropped and his completion percentage was at 57.8 percent. That final stretch included the worst passing game of Wilson’s career when he threw for just 108 yards in Seattle’s 17-10 home loss to Arizona.
The argument that Seattle’s offensive slump came against good defenses does hold credence. Over the final four weeks, the Seahawks faced the Nos. 5, 8, 6 and 15 overall defenses in the league. Arizona finished with the top run defense in the NFL, while San Francisco was fourth against the run and seventh against the pass.
“We were going against some of the top defenses in the league, specifically our division … so you always have to take that into consideration,” Golden Tate said. “We just have to keep doing us. We don’t think we’re being unproductive.”
Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell believes a chunk of the problem can be directly traced to Seattle’s struggles on third down. The Seahawks were a combined 14 of 51 (27 percent) on third downs over the final four weeks. That led to fewer long drives and less overall plays for the Seahawks offense. Seattle had just 50 offensive plays at San Francisco and 51 against Arizona.
“When we’re in the 50s in total plays that’s where our third downs have been hurting us. So we have to really work on that area,” Bevell said. “Some of the red zone that we have looked at, we have to get back better there. We climbed all the way to top five or whatever and then we had some issues. So we have to make sure that we can finish drives when we get those opportunities down there.”
Seattle does have the knowledge that Wilson was stellar during the playoffs last season, including a career-high 385 yards passing against Atlanta. It certainly won’t hamper the offense if wide receiver Percy Harvin is able to return for his second game of the season. Wilson said Wednesday that Harvin, “looks unbelievable so far.” Harvin was a full participant in practice on Wednesday and a decision on whether he plays against the Saints will likely be made Thursday.
“He’s been itching to play,” Wilson said. “Hopefully we can get him out there. That would be exciting.”