FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Since becoming a full-time starter in 2014, Doug Baldwin has been the most consistently impactful offensive player for the Seattle Seahawks outside of Russell Wilson.
Over the last two seasons, Baldwin has averaged nearly 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns, becoming Wilson's go-to target. There's no doubt that Wilson is the key to Seattle's offense, but containing Baldwin goes a long way in stopping the Seahawks' passing game.
With 79 targets this year, Baldwin is the ninth-most targeted receiver; he's caught 54 passes for 633 yards and three touchdowns. Through the first nine weeks of the season, Baldwin earned a grade of 88.3 from Pro Football Focus, tying him with Julio Jones for second-best among receivers.
Baldwin is exceptionally versatile, and he is utilized both out wide and from the slot receiver position. While he doesn't possess elite speed or size, Baldwin is an efficient pass-catcher and he excels at gaining yards after the catch.
Let's take a closer look at what the Falcons' defense is up against in Baldwin, who caught five passes for 80 yards and a touchdown in last year's NFC divisional round playoff game.
Schematic versatility and route running
Although he hasn't developed the same tenacious reputation, Baldwin's game is reminiscent of former Carolina Panthers star Steve Smith.
His quickness in the open field and rapid acceleration allows Seattle to move Baldwin around and create matchup advantages. The Seahawks have shown a few play designs that work to hide Baldwin as he works against the flow of the play only to come wide open on the other side.
"He's a great player," Falcons cornerback Brian Poole said. "They run a lot of things to fit his style of play. He can get in and out of his breaks really well. He's an undrafted player like me, so he usually plays with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, which I understand being undrafted as well."
Against Green Bay, Baldwin began in the slot on the left side of the formation and is motioned back to an offset position just behind the right tackle and the tight end on the right side.
Seattle ran a play-action pass, faking an outside zone run to the right side of the formation. While this action happens, Baldwin slid out to the left behind the offensive line and popped free out into the flat. The key defender on this play is the outside linebacker, who gets sucked too far in because of the fake handoff to keep up with the much quicker Baldwin.
It resulted in a 7-yard gain on first down, putting the Seahawks' offense well ahead of schedule in terms of down and distance and showing the creativity they are capable of.
Against the Tennessee Titans in Week 3, the Seahawks ran a similar style of play designed to get him the ball in the flat with room to run.
Baldwin again began the play in the slot on the left side of the formation, but instead of motioning all the way across the formation, he slides to the end of the left side of the line.
The Seahawks again ran a play-action pass, faking an outside zone run, and Baldwin really sold out as a blocker on the line of scrimmage. Once the linebacker crossed Baldwin's face, the receiver pivoted and ran an arrow route into the flat.
This play again occurred on first down for Seattle and resulted in a 9-yard gain on a drive that ended in a touchdown.
Baldwin is more than a short-yardage, widen-the-field type of receiver, though. Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry is a comparable player from a size and production standpoint, but Baldwin has a downfield element to his game that Landry shown consistently.
On his downfield plays, Baldwin still puts his short-space agility to great use. Against the New York Giants, Baldwin had two big downfield plays where he generated space with a smooth stutter-step move near the line of scrimmage.
Midway through the first quarter, Baldwin is lined up as the outside receiver on the left side of the formation opposite of Giants cornerback Janoris Jenkins.
After eating up the cushion that Jenkins gave him, Baldwin feinted an inside move before he gained outside leverage and separated. Wilson hit him in stride for a 32-yard gain on first down as part of a long drive that spanned the rest of the first quarter.
In the third quarter, Baldwin once again burns the Giants defense deep – this time, for a touchdown.
He lined up in the slot position on the right side of the formation against cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The Giants didn't have any deep help in the middle of the field, which Baldwin and Wilson identified.
Baldwin again created separation immediately off the line of scrimmage by selling an outside move before breaking inside and gaining leverage on Rodgers-Cromartie. The result is an easy 22-yard touchdown pass.
The duality of Baldwin's ability to create space both horizontally and vertically enhances each of those individual aspects of his game, making him a complete receiver who is difficult to predict and even more difficult to fully contain. "He's coachable," Falcons cornerback Robert Alford said. "From the things that I've heard from him and then just watching him on the field, he's very talented. You've got to make sure you've got an eye on him each time he's out there. Seattle's offense uses him in various ways; they can use him at running back or use him inside or outside [at receiver]. He's very valuable to their offense and when you're guarding a player like that, you've got to know where he is at all times."
Play-making ability and yards after the catch
Like the aforementioned Smith did for the Panthers, Baldwin makes plays when called upon. According to Pro Football Focus, Baldwin has yet to drop a catchable pass thrown his way this season.
"The thing that you don't see on the stat sheet is he is a relentless competitor," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "The same player that you see on the field is the same player you see on the practice field. Really, [he] just doesn't back off a challenge and going for it. … I think [he's] just like a dog competitor. He fights for passes."
The trust that Baldwin has earned from Wilson, similar to the trust Aaron Rodgers has in Jordy Nelson, allows the Seahawks to keep plays alive and create big moments between the pair of them.
In the second quarter against the Washington Redskins, Wilson was chased from the pocket and forced to roll out to his right side. Baldwin began the play lined up in the slot on the left side and ran a simple curl route in the middle of the field.
Once the play broke down and Wilson got outside of the pocket, he motioned to Baldwin, who then cut upfield and found space behind the Redskins defense for a big play that was called back due to holding.
The trust Wilson places in Baldwin allowed for one of the biggest plays in Seattle's victory against the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday night.
Leading 15-10 early in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks faced a second-and-21 on their own 44-yard line. The play looked initially to be a read-option run play as both Baldwin and the second receiver to the right side started out as blockers.
Wilson kept the ball and rolled out to his left, but didn't have anybody open on the play. He bought time with his legs, but the play looked doomed from the start. That is, until Baldwin noticed his quarterback buying time and found open space along the left sideline.
After avoiding a pair of defenders, Wilson finally let a pass fly in Baldwin's direction, but it's not entirely clear whether he tried to throw to Baldwin or throw the ball out of bounds. Either way, Baldwin makes a great leaping catch and shakes his defender to run 54 yards and set up a first down at the 2-yard line.
Baldwin has shown great awareness of defensive spacing in recent years. As his knowledge of the game progresses, he seemingly knows where to be to take advantage of a defense.
This is also a useful quality for Baldwin when he has the ball in his hands. Seattle has set up a lot of plays this season meant to get him the ball early and with space to run.
"His change of direction is one of the physical gifts that he has that make him difficult to tackle in space," Quinn said. "Where he can really put his foot in the ground – much like Devonta [Freeman] – and stick it and accelerate to full speed really fast. He's got hands. He's able to change direction when he's got the ball in his hands – much like a running back could."
A prime example of this occurred in the first quarter against the Titans. On first down with the ball at their 35-yard line, the Seahawks lined up in a formation with Baldwin in the slot to the right side.
Seattle again ran a play-action pass, faking a power run to the left side. As Baldwin faked a blocking assignment, the receiver outside of him ran a vertical route meant to clear space in the defense.
Baldwin caught the ball just 2 yards past the line of scrimmage, but he then picked up an additional 11 yards after the catch, nearly cutting all the way back for an explosive play.
The same agility that makes him such a dangerous route runner also makes Baldwin slippery in the open field. He's not a player who necessarily possesses elite speed or agility – although he certainly has more than enough of each quality – but he understands how to use the traits he does have to their maximum levels.
"It can be tough, but you've got to play to your strengths," Poole said. "You've got to use your help; you've got to use your leverage. You've just got to be disciplined."