Imagery of flying dirt, a nasty stare, and the chill air of December combined with otherworldly speed is nightmare fuel for quarterbacks. If the December air was not cold enough, the chill of determination in the eyes of Bobby Wagner adds another dimension to the atmosphere. Suffice it to say, a linebacker who epitomizes the grit of the gridiron changes the way offenses operate. They take away space, impose fierce speed, and make offensive coordinators’ skin crawl. Wagner carries that mentality for the Seattle Seahawks defense, and then compounds upon physicality with insane intangibles. Few defensive players play as fast as Wagner and even fewer play with the understanding and schematic fortitude he does. The laborious point on the Seahawks defense has been the diminishment of the Legion of Boom due to injuries. However, the resounding point ought to be Wagner taking command of the gridiron, and the defensive MVP race.
MVP Candidate Bobby Wagner Taking Command of the Gridiron
The Imposition of Physicality
To become a legendary linebacker, there ought to be more than physicality in playstyle. There must be a physicality that forces offenses to change the fabric of their function. Ray Nitschke paved this football truth, Ray Lewis emboldened it during the last decade. Wagner now is taking those reins in the quiet northwest and personifying what it means to be a game-changing linebacker.
Understanding why Wagner ought to be the defensive MVP of the NFL demands an understanding of his principled fundamentals, versatility in scheme, and how he has bolstered and commanded a Seahawks defense suffering from a bevy of injuries. The appreciation for Wagner delves deeper than stats and into the very nuance of how he plays the game of football.
Begin by watching Wagner’s lateral speed. On the pure eye test, there will be plays teams run that veer away from his alignment, yet he will be directly over the running back at the end of the play. Ball hawk and tenacity describe his level of intensity that transitions to the force of his tackles.
Go back to his NFL combine, or lack thereof. During the 2012 scouting process, Wagner suffered from pneumonia and ended up missing the Combine which forced him to make the most of his Utah State pro day. And make the most of it he did, running a 4.46 second 40-yard dash, a 39.5 inch vertical, and completing the short shuttle in 4.24 seconds while hitting the three-cone drill with 7.03 seconds of ferocity.
Granted, those numbers are five years old by now, but they epitomize the growth of Wagner from a purely athletic linebacker to one who owns the field with austere principles and versatility. His ball-hawk speed has developed from that 4.24 short shuttle, while other data from his pro day would have made him a top five linebacker at the Combine.
However, all those numbers are meaningless fun facts unless they translate to the field. Statistically, Wagner leads the NFL in tackles for 2017 with 85, tacking on two interceptions and a safety for fun. For comparison, his career high in tackles came in 2013 with 89. He has grown more prominent in the NFL each year; in 2014 he was 22nd in tackles, 37th in 2015, and 17th in 2016.
While there are more meaningful linebackers statistically, there are few linebackers who put emphasis behind each tackle like Wagner. He embodies the Hawk-tackle by not routinely going through the motions, but processing each play.
In the most recent game against the Philadelphia Eagles, head coach Doug Pederson at times definitively called run plays away from Wagner’s alignment. In the early game plan, Lane Johnson often carried the onus of leaking into the next level to box Wagner out of the play. Even when taken out of the play, lanes opened for teammates Bradley McDougald and K.J. Wright to land several key tackles.
The mere threat of speed, lateral technique, and understanding how to intertwine all those elements into functional aptitude make Wagner a threat from the physical standpoint. However, the narrative around his schematic importance only synthesizes his prominence.
A Changing of the Guard
The changing of the guard on the Seahawks defense has taken a sudden and shocking turn. Before the season, there were questions as to how long the Legion of Boom could stay together for financial and aging reasons. Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, and Richard Sherman had a reign in the NFL that was nearing a window. However, that window unexpectedly slammed shut and shattered to the chilling wind of injuries to Chancellor and Sherman.
Fortunately, rookie cornerback Shaquill Griffin and free-agent acquisition McDougald would come in to shore up those roles. But, as consistent as they have been over the past few weeks, they are not the legendary Legion of Boom. Players who consistently manipulate opposing offenses do not grow on trees. The Seahawks needed another unit on their defense to become legendary to sustain an offense championed behind a wizard named Russell Wilson.
If the Seahawks wanted to keep mere hope alive for their 2017 campaign, the inept running game and rotating wall of an offensive line needed a defense to continuously force the momentum of the game. While the narrative was more on the chaos of a guard changing, in reality the new guard of Wagner and Wright had already quietly been taking over command of the defense.
Wagner and Wright now lead the defensive communication in alignment with Thomas. Wagner has played on 800 snaps, or 97.68% of defensive plays. Wright comes in second with 777 snaps, or 94.87% of defensive plays. They are now fundamentally the generals and executioners of the field.
Again, the win against the Eagles was telling. Wagner and Wright took the onus of directing traffic and pointing out mismatches. However, even in the non-premier performances, their command shone true.
Against the Arizona Cardinals, the duo held the Cardinals rushing attack to a mere 34 yards after exploding the week before. Even in a loss, they limited the Washington Redskins to 51 yards on the ground, forced a safety, and only lost due to a last minute bomb from Kirk Cousins. The Los Angeles Rams and Todd Gurley were unable to run their way to sustained success and stumbled to 10 points. The Jacksonville Jaguars will be offering a similar battle for Wagner and Wright to tackle this weekend when Leonard Fournette looks to continue an electric rookie season past the proverbial brick wall.
Implication of it all: the Seahawks defense is in good hands. The guard may have changed, but few teams are blessed to have a dual unit of linebackers who can carry excellence into a new look.
Fundamental Scheme Use
Versus the Philadelphia Eagles
Completing the case for Wagner comes through studying the film. The way defensive coordinator Kris Richard utilizes Wagner is dynamic, fluid, and entirely composed on his versatile athleticism afore mentioned. Few linebackers truly can carry the onus of multiple assignments like Wagner.
If the speed of Wagner can be gloated about once more, against the Eagles it shone when Wentz attempted a play action pass with 4:23 left in the first quarter. Although the pass went away from Wagner’s side, he stepped into the hole on the play action fake, and was still able to drop back into zone coverage upon recognition. The pass was overthrown to Nelson Agholor on the other side, but Wagner’s speed and recognition to fill a zone was phenomenal.
Later in the game, there are points where Wagner, not defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson took the double-team. Granted, the defensive line does slant wrong, resulting in a gain for Jay Ajayi. However, Wagner still takes on the double team with a ferocity rare for a linebacker. Using all 241 pounds of muscle, he shags the block and makes the tackle.
Throughout the game, Wagner was used as either the middle linebacker or right outside linebacker by alignment. Even when pressed against the end zone, he was featured as a glorified safety. Again, speed and competency combine for him to play under routes with finesse. Few linebackers can efficiently play this kind of alignment and actually force quarterbacks to be wary of a linebacker in coverage.
Wagner has his imperfections in coverage. Against Trey Burton, he allowed an 11 yard completion late in the fourth quarter. However, the important note on this play is how quickly he recovers, combined with an excellent display of how to Hawk-tackle in the open-field. Receivers will not gain a plethora of yards after the catch when against Wagner. (Some analysts on Twitter have stated he has yet to miss a tackle on the season. Take that with a grain of salt, but tuck it away as an unverified fun fact.)
Ultimately, the one catch against Burton was juxtaposed to the rest of the game. The primary role Wagner takes on is a zone coverage spot at the aforementioned middle linebacker slot. He can line up wherever needed and play assignment football to the team’s needs. Based on recognition and speed, he can twitch from pass coverage to a run instantaneously.
In the second quarter, this created an entire series of plays where the Eagles ran away from Wagner and into the weak side of the field. Hence, the use of counter and sweep runs. Still, Wagner was spotted often by Ajayi, crossing the field and supporting his teammates even if with mere presence.
On pass plays, Wagner had one of the most important roles on the field. The Eagles run a plethora of under route and crossing concepts in the flats. Although Wentz has a big arm, he often targets softer spots on the short cones of the field. However, Wagner would diagram and manipulate Wentz away from these throws. He kept Burton, Zach Ertz, and the running back journeymen in check by stepping in Wentz’s line of sight. As a result, Wentz constantly had to avoid quick passes, taking away irritating short gains.
The last play of quarter three displayed this concept. Justin Coleman came in on a blitz from the right side of the defense. Due to Coleman showing blitz, Wentz’s eyes read right first. However, Wagner is in his line of sight. Wentz frantically looks left, sees pressure and Wright in coverage, checks right again, sees Wagner, tries to look left, and is sacked. The defensive play call used a quick-blitz and hard coverage in the flats to match a quick pass call.
Versus the Washington Redskins
To further epitomize Wagner’s lateral speed and on-field dominance, against the Redskins run game, offensive lineman commonly became preoccupied with pinning him off. This allowed Michael Wilhoite and Frank Clark to flow from the opposite side of the field and land tackles with proper fit to the line. Wagner squeezed the field and kept Robert Kelley from having open vision into the dark creases for a squirrelly cut back.
He maintained zone principles in coverage, with the onus of covering the motion man. Subsequently, other secondary members could maintain their principle and not have to worry about the typical ‘linebacker in coverage’ exploit. It’s safe to say that offensive coordinators must creatively rely on wide receivers to get past Wagner. He swallows them due to lightning, safety-esque principles in a 240-pound freight train frame.
Focusing in on principled blitzes, Wagner fueled Kirk Cousins’ nightmares for several days on a blitz and emphatic safety sack. The offensive line began by looking down to the offense’s right side and shifting protection that way. Wagner showed no sign of blitz from the left, however, Wright did. Cousins trusted his running back to lead the block on Wright, the only known blitzing back.
Cousins looked to the right upon handling the snap, and never had a hint that Wagner was about to rip him to the ground. Wright took on the running back, and Wagner shot from a cannon. He came from a delayed position as the mike linebacker and ran untouched directly into Cousins for the safety.
Few linebackers can be trusted to completely decoy a blitz in their face. Even fewer linebackers can be trusted to complete the play with cannon speed as Wagner did.
The pure athleticism, leadership, command of the field, and versatility in scheme use allow for Wagner to be one of the best linebackers in the NFL. However, if his 2017 film does not make him the leading defensive MVP candidate, the jovial side behind his on-field tenacity ought to.
And it all begins with his love of the Ninja Turtles. Since his rise to dominance, the Seahawks PR department has cherished the inner-kid inside of Wagner. Yes, in 2014 he pitched to be a part of the Ninja Turtles movie, having been obsessed with them since he was a kid. Yet, the more he fell in love with Seattle, the more they came to know the importance of his most cherished Ninja Turtle back pack, one he carries to this day.
In December of 2014 Wagner had his car broken into and possessions stolen. However, out of all the possessions he lost, the only item he humbly requested back was his green ‘Holy Grail’. Why is this his Holy Grail? It was a gift from his mother Phenia Wagner.
Mrs. Wagner passed away during Bobby Wagner’s freshman year at Utah State. Therefore, that gift is more than a backpack, but a way to remember why he is fighting every Sunday. His mom pushed him to attend Utah State, where he became a standout linebacker. His mom principled him in the off-the-field traits that now carry over to the field. And for that reason, Wagner is paving his way to becoming an on-the-field legend for the Seahawks defense.
(Jayson Jenks did an excellent job of covering Wagner’s history in this January 2016 feature found in the Seattle Times.)
In conclusion, Wagner is more than an MVP of the NFL; he is an MVP in Seattle’s heart. The film makes a hard case for Wagner being MVP, but even if he loses the award in 2017, he will win the most important fights in life. From family to community, Wagner will be remembered for defending the turf of Seattle’s future generations.
Head coach Pete Carroll states it simplest and best: “He’s just awesome.”