How Bobby Wagner’s speed shored up the Seahawks’ defense
The best way to understand Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner is as a giant eraser — a cog in the middle of Seattle’s defense who quickly scrubs mistakes. Wagner is a tackling machine, and his return from injury has coincided with the Seahawks playing their best defense.
Seattle Times staff reporter
RENTON — The best way to understand Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner is as a giant eraser — a cog in the middle of Seattle’s defense who quickly scrubs mistakes.
Wagner is a tackling machine, and his return from injury the last two games has coincided with the Seahawks playing their best defense. He is one of the NFL’s fastest linebackers, and in his third season he understands what’s asked of him in coach Pete Carroll’s defense. But one of Wagner’s best assets is using that speed to compensate for other cracks in the defense.
“It makes up for things,” linebacker Mike Morgan said. “Say you have an issue where a guy is out of his gap or a guy slips, he’s there. And he doesn’t miss many tackles. If you watch him, a lot of times when he hits running backs or receivers, they go back. They don’t fall forward very often.
“He makes up for all the other stuff that happens because stuff happens in games where guys aren’t in their gaps or whatever. That’s part of football. That’s why our defense is so good because we have guys like him who can close on the ball and make up for mistakes.”
Wagner’s speed is an equalizer, a tool that can shore up the sporadic leaks that pop up during games. If a receiver gets free in the flat, Wagner is fast enough to limit the damage. If a running back squirts by the defensive line, Wagner can usually negate a big gain.
On the opening drive of last Thursday’s game against the 49ers, running back Frank Gore burst through the line of scrimmage and looked headed for a healthy gain. But Wagner got off his block, ran Gore down and, along with the speed of safety Earl Thomas, held Gore to a 4-yard gain that forced San Francisco into third-and-long.
“He does a good job of correcting people and fixing people when they maybe jump out of the gap or don’t hold the gap,” safety Kam Chancellor said. “He fixes them. He makes people right. He’s just always in the right place.”
Added Morgan, “The way he closes, not too many guys can do what he does.”
Wagner is 58th in the NFL in tackles despite missing five games because of a turf toe injury. But it’s not just the number of tackles the Seahawks look at. It’s how he’s making them.
“During the offseason, he watched a lot of the film, and there were certainly plays that he just kind of got the guy down as opposed to an imposing tackle,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “It was part of his game he wanted to work at because you always felt his speed. Now I think the demeanor when he gets there, (you feel) it.”
Wagner isn’t the only reason for Seattle’s recent defensive success — the Seahawks struggled at times when he was healthy — but his skillset is unique, and his return allows K.J. Wright to play outside linebacker, the position at which he is most comfortable.
When the Seahawks picked Wagner in the second round of the 2012 draft, they did so under the assumption that his speed would eventually find him a home.
Wagner was considered undersized coming out of Utah State, but he ran the 40-yard dash in a blazing 4.46 seconds at his pro day. The Seahawks wanted Wagner to compete for the recently vacated starting middle linebacker job as a rookie, but they also thought he could play outside linebacker with his speed.
His instincts at middle linebacker quickly took over, and he showed the natural feel to command the defense. He has developed into one of Seattle’s most important defenders ever since.
“He’s always around the ball,” linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. said. “In this league, you have to have a guy that can run down Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick. You have to have that speed.”
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