“Want me to tell you?” receiver Phil Bates says in front of his locker. Bates is standing next to fellow receiver Jermaine Kearse. During the Seahawks’ Monday night victory over New Orleans on Dec. 2, Kearse and quarterback Russell Wilson connected on one of the game’s toughest passes. The throw was a back-shoulder fade, meaning Wilson threw behind Kearse to his back shoulder instead of throwing to his front shoulder.
“Well, my man Jermaine is like a ninja, an assassin,” Bates says. “So he smoothly creeps up on you. He looks like nothing is about to happen and then he just shows up. That’s the key to catching the fade. You’ve got to look like nothing is happening. He sees the ball, but the defensive back doesn’t see it. He’s blind. That’s how it happens.”
Says Kearse, “Something like that.”
The Seahawks have caught 221 passes this season, but there are three that stand out because of their importance or difficulty. One is Doug Baldwin’s tiptoe catch along the sideline against Carolina. Another is Golden Tate’s one-handed grab on a fade route against Atlanta.
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And the other is Kearse’s, a catch Wilson called “the turning point of the game.”
The back-shoulder fade
The first thing you need to know about the back-shoulder fade: It’s never a designed play. It’s all a reaction, a feel, to how the defense is playing.
Both the receiver and quarterback have to recognize that.
The Seahawks led New Orleans 20-7 and had a chance for the kill shot in the final two minutes of the first half. First, though, they had to keep the drive alive on third-and-nine.
When Kearse started his route, he initially looked to go long. If he could beat his defender, Wilson would hit him deep.
Kearse’s most memorable plays have come on deep throws, and he leads the Seahawks with 16.9 yards per catch. But New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins stayed close, triggering Plan B.
“If I can beat him, the ball is going downfield,” Kearse says. “But if the defender is on my top shoulder, Russell’s going to throw it to my back shoulder and throw it to an area where I’m able to make a play.”
Wilson dictates the sequence because the receiver is reacting to his throw, slamming on the breaks, opening his hips back toward the quarterback and finding the ball before the defensive back can react.
“You’ve just got to be a ninja,” Kearse says. “The defender is never going to know it’s coming because he’s looking at you.”
Kearse hauled in a 19-yard catch in front of Jenkins, and the Seahawks scored a touchdown on the drive with 13 seconds left.
The sideline toe-tap
The secret to Doug Baldwin’s toe-tapping catches? Wiring your mind to eliminate thoughts of getting hit or a hard fall.
“It’s like running down on a kickoff and knowing you’ve got to hit the wedge,” Baldwin says. “You know it’s going to hurt, but you’ve got to do it. It’s the same thing when you catch the ball like that. You know you’re going to hit the ground, but you can’t extend your legs or arms to catch your fall. That goes against everybody’s thought process.”
You remember Baldwin’s catch at Carolina, one of several sideline grabs he has made this year. Wilson tried to scramble on third-and-eight with the Seahawks trailing 7-3 late in the third quarter but had nowhere to go. Right before two defenders collided with him, Wilson flung the ball, almost blindly, toward the sideline.
Baldwin had actually gone deep on the play, but worked back when he saw Wilson moving. As he did, he let his eyes wander, allowing him to sense how close he was to the sideline while still tracking the ball.
That multi-tasking sometimes gets him in trouble because his eyes aren’t always locked in — “Doug makes tough catches better than he does easy ones,” wide receivers coach Kippy Brown says — but it was useful this time. When Wilson let go of the ball, Baldwin had a pretty good idea of where he was.
That’s why he didn’t extend his hands to make the 13-yard catch. He let the ball come to his body as he fell out of bounds. He knew a defender was closing in to knock it away.
“As soon I did that,” he says, “my thought process is, ‘I’m on the sideline. I’ve got to kill my legs. Don’t kick, don’t flare.’ There’s no movement in the lower body other than straight down to touch the ground.”
The Seahawks kicked a field goal on the drive and won the game with a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Golden Tate is talking about a red line that’s invisible during games. But that red line, which is very real for Seattle’s receivers even when they can’t see it, played a role Nov. 10 in Tate’s one-handed catch during a 33-10 victory at Atlanta.
On their practice fields, the Seahawks paint vertical red lines 6 yards in from each sideline. They serve as points of reference for defensive backs and receivers, but they’re especially important when talking about fade routes like the one Tate ran against the Falcons.
The Seahawks had the ball on Atlanta’s 6-yard line with only eight seconds left in the first half. The Seahawks already led 16-3 and had a chance to bury the Falcons.
On third down, Wilson floated a pass toward the back corner of the end zone. Tate knew if he jumped and tried to catch the ball at its highest point, the defensive back could push him out before he got his feet down inbounds.
So he decided to hold off the defensive back with his right arm while drifting left. When the ball reached him in the corner of the end zone, he stuck out his left hand and hauled in what he calls his first one-handed catch in the NFL.
“That’s something we’re always taught: hold the red line and catch the ball on your outside shoulder,” Tate says. “If you catch it on your outside shoulder, the DB can’t get it without getting called for pass interference. Right there, I didn’t plan on it, but I practice daily catching one-handed balls.”
All of the Seahawks’ routes are run off of go routes, meaning “your first five steps or so should always look like you’re trying to go deep,” Tate says. “That’s how you get a defensive back in his backpedal. That’s how you get them uncomfortable.”
Tate burst off the line of scrimmage and ran at cornerback Robert Alford, who was playing 5 yards off. Once Tate reached Alford, he needed to slip him and start fading his route to the corner of the end zone.
“What that means is you want to be tight to him and run by him,” Tate says. “If you leave too much room between you and him, he can just turn around and beat you to that spot.”
And then, once you do that?
“At that point we get to the red line,” Tate says. “You get to the red line and just be an athlete after that.”
Sometimes it’s as simple as that.
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org