RENTON, Wash. – After their defense fell into a midseason lull stopping the run, Seattle Seahawks coaches – to use the football vernacular – asked Bobby Wagner to take his play to another level.
First, though, Wagner had to return to form.
The middle linebacker was off to a good start to the season before spraining his ankle in Week 5 at Indianapolis. He then made what coach Pete Carroll called a surprisingly fast recovery and missed only two games.
In his first two games back, though, St. Louis (200 yards) and Tampa Bay (205) rushed for a combined 405 yards in almost pulling off upsets of the heavily favored Seahawks.
Wagner won’t say he shouldn’t have played. But he admits he wasn’t fully recovered.
“I definitely felt like I was capable of playing,” Wagner said. “Was I playing in some pain? I was playing in a little bit of pain. But it wasn’t enough to be like ‘All right, nah, I can’t do it.’ ”
Still, as Wagner said, “I feel 100 percent (now). I feel great. And I think it’s showing.”
In fact, teammates and coaches rave about Wagner’s play the past month, which coincides with the Seahawks having become as stout against the run as at any time all season.
Wagner has 50 tackles in the past five games as the Seahawks have allowed just 76.8 rushing yards a game (compared with a season average of 101.6).
“Bobby Wagner is instrumental in what we do,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “And in the run game, you really have a sense that there’s even another level to go to from understanding in terms of the technique and what we want to play. That’s really the constant challenge that we put on the guys. Can you get better again? Can you now work your skills even harder?
“He’s one of the players … that we tried to identify to say can you pick it up and get even sharper in that area, and he certainly has.”
Or, as teammate Richard Sherman put it, “He’s picked up his game and is starting to play like an All-Pro.”
Wagner, a second-round choice in 2012 out of Utah State, credits both health and the added comfort level of now being in his second season in the NFL.
“I feel like I just know the game a lot better than I did last year,” Wagner said. “Last year, I felt like a little kid out there playing to play with the big boys. This year, I feel like I belong here.”
Wagner specifically cited being able to more quickly recognize plays and formations.
“A lot of the stuff last year, I had never seen before in my football career because Utah State was more of a spread team,” he said. “So I feel like a lot of stuff I’m seeing a lot better now than I did last year.”
Wagner said a subtle shift in the style of his play also helped in defending the run.
“I’ve just been more aggressive and more downhill,” Wagner said. “And I think me being more aggressive has helped the defensive line out because the (offensive linemen) come off the double teams a lot faster … and the linemen have done a great job of keeping the linemen off of me. So a lot of the stuff I’ve been doing has also been a credit to them.”
Seattle’s, well, run of run stoutness began with its 34-7 victory Dec. 2 over the same New Orleans Saints that it now plays Saturday in an NFC Divisional playoff game at CenturyLink Field.
Seattle held the Saints to 44 yards on 17 carries that night in limiting the Saints to just 188 yards overall.
Since Seattle last saw the Saints, though, New Orleans has displayed a renewed commitment to running, including getting 126 at Carolina (where Seattle was held to 70 in Week 1) and then 185 on 36 carries in the 26-24 wild-card round victory Saturday at Philadelphia.
“They have run the ball more,” Carroll said. “What it means I don’t know, but it does show you something different.”
Wagner said he thinks the Saints still will rely on a passing game that ranked second in the NFL this year at 307.4 yards a game.
“I felt like they ran a lot of their (usual) runs (against Philadelphia),” Wagner said. “They just did it a lot more to set up their passes. I felt like it wasn’t any new runs, just more of it. And we will be ready for it.”