Seahawks Tight End Luke Willson taking advantage of opportunity leading into Super Bowl XLIX

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

This Story is from SB Nation

By Danny Kelly  @FieldGulls on Jan 22 2015, 11:19a 52 

A third-string tight end in training camp, Seattle's Luke Willson has developed a chemistry with Russell Wilson and become one of the team's most important offensive chess pieces. Danny Kelly breaks down why Willson is so valuable to the Seahawks.

The cliche "next man up" gets thrown around a lot when it comes to NFL teams fighting the battle of injury attrition over the course of a season, but for theSeahawks, it's an expression that's been uttered far too frequently in 2014. Seattle has 17 players on their injured reserve lists heading into Super Bowl 49, and Zach Miller is by far the most important offensive piece the Seahawks have missed on gamedays.

"If I could take any guy in the league, on the last play to win a game -- whether it's a run or a pass or you need a guy to protect -- I'd take Zach," Seahawks tight ends coach Pat McPherson said recently. "Zach can do it all."

But, Miller went out Week 3 with an ankle injury that would eventually require surgery, and after starting the season without backup tight end Anthony McCoy (who tore his Achilles tendon in training camp for the second straight year), the Seahawks were quickly down to their third- and fourth-string players at that spot. Second-year pro Luke Willson, a fifth-round pick out of Rice who caught nine passes in his college career, was the heir apparent to Miller.

For a club that relies heavily on their tight ends in the run game and in pass blocking, it was going to be interesting to see how they could adapt.

"It's a big loss," Pete Carroll said of losing their high-caliber tight end early in the year. "Zach does everything really well. We've not really been able to replace that. Zach does a lot more stuff than we do now: for us in the backfield, fullback stuff that he could play for us. He's done so many things in his background that we could call on things for him to do and he was just really good at it."

Next man up: Luke Willson.

"This is really a great opportunity for him to step up," Carroll said at the time. "He's improved in every area. He's one of those young guys that really has gotten a ton better. He's tougher and faster than he was a year ago because of the off-season. So in every way he has improved. But this is a lot to ask of him. This is the first time he'll have this kind of duty. But it's his turn to step up."

And, step up he has. Over the Seahawks' last eight games -- all wins -- Willson has scored a team-high three touchdowns, is tied for second on the team in receptions with 17, behind only Doug Baldwin, and is third in receiving yards behind Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse.

Willson's real breakout game was Week 16, against the rival Cardinals, where he went into Super Bowl 49 site Glendale and had three huge catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns. His most impressive play may have been when he caught a post-seam route over the middle and then beat safety Rashad Johnson the final 60-odd yards downfield.

Willson's somewhat unique skill set had shown up. A big part of the reason the Seahawks liked the little-known player out of Rice was he ran a solid 4.5-second 40 in pre-draft testing, all at 6'5, 255 pounds.

The chemistry between Russell Wilson and Willson -- quarterback and tight end -- was finally on display.

"The work that they've put in, the time they've spent together, Luke is really coming alive," said Carroll recently. "They are creating a chemistry that makes a difference. Luke is a big man that runs real fast. If you get the ball in his hands, you saw him break the tackles and go."

Again against the Cardinals, Wilson saw a coverage at the line that he really liked and he threw off his back foot up the seam for Willson, well before he'd come open over the top of the linebacker. He trusted his tight end to go get it. That's chemistry.

Same deal below, as Wilson hit Willson for a touchdown over the top. Willson's separation at the top of the route is what's striking about this play, to me.

"He's a heckuva football player," said Carroll of his second-year tight end. "So, that's something that's really exciting. It's coming on, and you're right, it's getting better as we're finishing up this season. It really bodes well for the future and those guys working together. "

Willson had a quiet day against the Rams in Week 17 -- a game in which he dropped two catchable passes -- but bounced back when the Seahawks needed him against thePanthers. Leading 17-10 with under 12 minutes remaining in the game, Wilson went to his athletic tight end twice on the drive that helped put the game away.

His first was a hitch route connection that's becoming more commonplace for the two. Willson found a soft spot in the defense, sat down at the sticks, and Wilson got the ball out to him quickly.

His second was similar -- he ran a shallow slant into a soft spot in the Panthers' zone coverage, reverse pivoted without giving up any momentum, then turned on the jets to beat Roman Harper to the end zone.

Willson had a quiet day against the Packers -- the Seahawks whole passing offense was quiet, really, until the final four minutes -- but he did catch an absolutely crucial two-point conversion on a prayer of a throw by Wilson. After blocking the blind-side on a Wilson sprint out to the right, Willson realized that play was dead and released to the open side of the field to give his quarterback an option. Again, chemistry at play. Also, a little luck.

Willson figures to be a bigger part of the gameplan against a Patriots team that has a very strong secondary and will make things hard on Seattle's outside receivers with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in coverage. It's a matchup up the seam and over the middle that the Seahawks may want to really feature.

"Luke has been a bigger factor," Carroll said. "Luke has gotten downfield and caused some problems for opponents -- big plays, because he's a big, fast kid. He can really get downfield and stretch it out, and Russell has a great sense for him now. It just looks like the chemistry has really connected in the last month or six weeks or so.

"So it's a big deal. It's a big deal to have another weapon that can strike you like that."

"The way Luke Willson is playing out there out of nowhere, give credit to Russell Wilsonand the offensive coordinator for putting him in the game plan," said Tony Gonzalez, a former Falcons' and Chiefs' tight end and future Hall of Famer. "They're going to bring him from every different angle you can think of, line him up everywhere on the field like a Rob Gronkowski. He's bigger, faster, stronger than most people who are going to be on the other side of him."

"Some of the glimpses we saw at Rice is something we're seeing every time he touches the ball," said Willson's former tight ends coach at Rice, David Sloan, who is a former Pro Bowl tight end for the Detroit Lions. "If he stays healthy, he'll be one of the elite tight ends in the NFL. Everyone will know his name, not just in Seattle."

Willson may not need to wait until he's "one of the elite tight ends in the NFL" for everyone to know his name, though. He'll get his shot to put his name out there next week in Glendale, on the biggest NFL stage there is. The way he's been catching the ball and putting up yards after the catch, it wouldn't be surprising for the Seahawks to look to Willson early and often.