With the Seahawks still trailing the Giants midway through the third quarter of Sunday's game in New York, Doug Baldwin stood in the slot, two yards away from Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie.
Moments earlier, Baldwin, Russell Wilson and the rest of Seattle's offense had recognized that the Giants were playing Cover-zero, as in zero safety help in the middle of the field, and Wilson changed the play to capitalize on New York's aggressive call. In that moment, Baldwin knew that if he could beat single coverage, as he has done so many times in his career, the end result was going to be a touchdown.
As Justin Britt snapped the ball to Wilson, Baldwin took one step towards Cromartie—more of a hop, actually—then instead of running right away, he stutter stepped and ever-so-subtly feigned a release to the outside. When Baldwin saw Cromartie shift his weight to his left foot, Baldwin exploded off of his right foot and blew past the two-time Pro-Bowl cornerback with an inside release. A few steps later, Baldwin had three yards of separation as Wilson's pass fell towards him for a touchdown that gave the Seahawks a lead they would never give up in an eventual 24-7 victory.
Baldwin has a lot of moves, but that one, his hop-skip hesitation—he describes as a basketball crossover dribble, minus the ball—is his go-to, an almost impossible-to-defend move thanks to Baldwin's quickness at the line of scrimmage.
"I can do a lot of things depending upon the leverage of the guy covering me," Baldwin said. "My favorite one is a hop-skip, I call it a hop-skip hesitation. Basically I hop into it, hesitate, then give a jab left or a jab right, then depending on his leverage at that time, then I decide which side I'm going to go to."
Talk to any teammate or opponent about Baldwin's ability to get open, and the first thing they'll mention is what he can do in those initial moments at the line of scrimmage.
"He's very explosive off the line-of-scrimmage," said Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who has been practicing against Baldwin for a decade dating back to their time together at Stanford. "He's very deliberate in his route-running—sudden would be the word. Literally if you blink, you miss him. If you're blinking while he's making his move, that's just your biggest mistake. If you haven't seen him before, if you haven't played against him, if you haven't lined up in front of him, he'll take you by surprise. He'll jump up on you quick, it'll be difficult to adjust to his movements and his quickness. He could probably have 2,000 yards if he wasn't double-teamed and things like that all of the time, but he's tough to deal with."
Yet as much as Baldwin's quickness and athletic ability plays into it, the mental side of the game plays a huge role as well.
"Doug's really aware of coverage," said fellow Seahawks receiver Paul Richardson "That's what makes him such a good route runner."
Going into a game, Baldwin will have a pretty good idea of how a team will cover him based on film study, but often times, an in-game chess match can also take place between receiver and corner. As Baldwin puts it, some corners "will try to be sneaky and change things up" from what they show on film. Baldwin can counter by working throughout a game to set up his man. That's what happened on that 22-yard touchdown catch against the Giants. After using an outside release several times against Cromartie, Baldwin faked the same thing in a big moment, caught his opponent leaning, then broke free for a score.
"The touchdown was a prime example of that," he said. "I was giving an outside move all game to Cromartie. Then on the touchdown, I made him think I was going outside, then I went inside."
Six games into his seventh season in the NFL, Baldwin is on pace for 96 catches, which would eclipse last year's career-high and franchise-record-tying total of 94. He is also on pace for a third straight 1,000 season, something only Steve Largent has done in franchise history (Largent had two different streaks of four straight 1,000-yard seasons).
Baldwin has rightly received a lot of attention over the past year for work he is doing off the field. He co-wrote a letter with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to the Senate Judiciary Committee calling for criminal justice reform; he helped lead the formation of the Seahawks Players Equality & Justice for All Action fund; he has traveled to Olympia to meet with lawmakers; and over the past year, he has helped lead a "build a bridge taskforce" which has worked with local law enforcement agencies to help build a bridge been law enforcement and the committees they serve.
What all of that has not done is distract Baldwin from his day job. Despite taking on so many things, including marriage this offseason, Baldwin has only improved as a player.
"Honestly it's not that difficult," Baldwin said of having a lot on his plate. "I'm one of those guys where, I enjoy challenges, and the more challenges I have, the more I'm able to focus, the more my world gets smaller. I know people think I'm piling on things, but It's not that I pile things on, I'm very selective on the things I take on, but then I give my all to those things. When I'm focused in one area of my life, it helps me focus in other areas of my life as well, so it makes the other things easier."
And what shouldn't get lost in all Baldwin is doing off the field—and again, those are noble causes he is pursuing—is just how well he has been playing on the field over the past few years. With each passing year and with each 1,000-yard season and step Baldwin moves up in the team record books, it becomes more and more difficult to understand how, six-and-a-half years ago, 32 teams decided to pass on Baldwin over the course of seven rounds of the 2011 draft. Yes, Baldwin is undersized by NFL standards, and no, his straight-line speed wasn't considered elite, but considering Baldwin's quickness, his hands, his toughness, his intelligence, his leadership qualities and his fierce competitiveness, it's almost comical, knowing what we know now, to think that nobody drafted him.
With the lockout taking place during that 2011 offseason, Baldwin couldn't sign right away after the draft, but a handwritten letter from Seahawks general manager John Schneider, as well as a lot of recruiting by Sherman, who was a fifth-round pick that year, convinced Baldwin to sign with Seattle later that summer when the lockout ended. Baldwin went on to become Seattle's leading receiver as a rookie, and since then has established himself as one of the game's most respected pass-catchers.
"He is a phenomenal catcher and he's tough and he can find out how to get that extra yard; he's got all that stuff going for him," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He is a fantastic player… There is nobody quicker than he is. There is nobody that can shake you at the line of scrimmage and get in and out of his breaks quicker than Doug. He is as fast as you can get. That is why he is one of the best in the NFL."
Baldwin has been particularly lethal throughout his career on third down, and that was again true in last week's game. Of Baldwin's nine catches against the Giants, five came on third down, with four of those picking up first downs. Looking at that another way, the Seahawks were a solid 6 for 13 on third down against New York, but they were 4 for 5 when targeting Baldwin.
"I don't think anybody can cover him," Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said of Baldwin. "He's so fast, he's so quick, he's explosive, he can get down the field, there's a lot of things that he can do. I think that he's a competitor; third down is about competing and finding a way to make a play, and that's usually the case. Doug is a guy that you rely on, you know that you can trust, and he's going to do it right, and he's going to get open fast and he's going to make a play."
Baldwin jokes that his success on third down comes because "Russ throws me the ball. That's it." Then after a quick laugh, Baldwin elaborates: "There's a lot that goes into it. Obviously there's a whole game plan you have to account for, the scheme, the play-calling, the play design itself, so a lot goes into it. But then really what it comes down to is everybody has to win their one-on-one matchups. So whoever's covering me, I have to beat that guy, Russ has to look off the safety, that's his one-on-one matchup, then we all have to be on the page, and if we are, typically we're successful."
As Baldwin tries to explain the nuance of route-running or the secret to his third-down success, Kam Chancellor chimes in with a simpler answer from a few lockers away.
"He's just more talented than the other guys." Chancellor says with a smile.
The talent is indeed undeniable, but there's more to it than that. To really appreciate how Baldwin went from undrafted to Pro Bowl receiver, watch him at the line of scrimmage crossing up corners with that hop-skip hesitation, watch him use moves throughout a game just to set up a different one that will pay off later on, or watch him find space in zone coverage because he spent all week learning how an opponent will likely try to defend Seattle's offense. Baldwin has spent years mastering his craft, and seven seasons into his career, he has established himself as one of the best in the business.
"He has improved a lot over the years," Carroll said. "I think the fine tuning of (his route-running) is, at the right time when the right opportunity is given to you by the coverage, taking advantage of that stuff consistently is what separates the guys who have the experience or not. I don't know that his route running is any better, it's just more precise and more fixed to the opportunity to take advantage of what's there. But he's a marvelous player."
Take a look back through history at the Seahawks' matchups against the Texans as the two teams ready to face off during Week 14 at NRG Stadium.