Bobby Wagner's Speed and Vision Key as Seahawks Run Defense Continues to Swarm

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystDecember 17, 2014

SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 14:  Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner #54 of the Seattle Seahawks celebrates after sacking quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth quarter at CenturyLink Field on December 14, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. The Seahawks defeated the 49ers 17-7.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

For those who try to run around him, it must be difficult to talk about Seattle Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner without using some colorful language.

That’s what Wagner does: He reduces you to a string of expletives and a curled-up ball of hurt. His speed and vision are the motor behind the Seahawks defense and its dominance against the run. Especially over the last four games (all wins) during a playoff surge when opposing runners have been held to only 3.5 yards per carry.

In a development that’s not at all a coincidence, Wagner recovered from his turf toe injury and returned four games ago. Also not even a little bit surprising: In those four games, he’s averaged 11.3 tackles.

Wagner is fast, and he makes quality reads to diagnose a play. Put it all together and that appropriate—though, profane—language comes out. For opponents, there’s only one way to describe what he does, and one correct answer for the Wagner word association test.

Say, San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore, how fast is Wagner?

The 40-yard dash is the ultimate measure of raw, maximum speed. We’re about two months away from that annual Underwear Olympics main event, and Wagner doesn’t even have an official time we can look back on to confirm that, yes, he is indeed "f-----g fast."

That’s because the eventual 47th overall pick in the second round missed his Scouting Combine appearance in 2012 while grappling with likely the only opponent capable of knocking him down: pneumonia. But later at his Utah State Pro Day, he posted a blistering time, covering those 40 yards in 4.46 seconds.

For some perspective on that speed, injured 49ers linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are often praised as the fastest middle linebacker tandem in the league. In 2010, Bowman needed 4.70 seconds to run 40 yards, and Willis did it in 4.51 during his combine appearance.

But speed is only one piece of the deep toolbox a linebacker needs while defending the run and filling gaps. He needs to react instantly, read movement that appears in only flashes of color and then launch.

When done correctly with the proper balance of athleticism and football intelligence, the result is a thud. For example:

That’s Wagner firing immediately after the snap to meet 49ers running back Alfonso Smith three yards deep in the backfield. You see his speed there, which is the first thing you notice about Wagner. It's also the second and third thing, but he’s so much more than that.

As I’ve written repeatedly this season, leaning on injuries as a crutch for a poor outcome can be foolish at best, and desperate reaching at worst. But we can still acknowledge a now glaring reality: The complexion of the Seahawks run defense changes dramatically without Wagner. 

Even after missing five games, he’s still second on the team in tackles, with his 85 behind only fellow linebacker K.J. Wright. A middle linebacker being among a team’s leaders in tackles and defensive stops isn’t remarkable until you realize Wagner has been on the field for only 544 snaps.

Seahawks' defensive stop leaders
PlayerSnapsTacklesStops
K.J. Wright8309543
Bobby Wagner5448537
Kam Chancellor7276929
Source: Pro Football Focus

The Seahawks defense has strung together an impressive stretch of pummeling and stuffing over the past four weeks. They’ve allowed only 6.75 points per game, an overpowering rooted in defending the run.

When running is removed for opposing offenses, third-down conversions are much more difficult, and so is maintaining possession. Generally, when an offense is one dimensional and that dimension has to contend with cornerback Richard Sherman, football becomes really, exceedingly hard.

The Seahawks have allowed only 325 rushing yards since Week 12. In three of those games (against the Philadelphia Eagles, Arizona Cardinals and the first of two against the San Francisco 49ers), opposing runners were held to less than 65 yards. That includes Eagles running back LeSean McCoy averaging 2.9 yards per carry in Week 12.

The only hiccup during that stretch was brief, with the leak plugged quickly: In Week 14 the 49ers finished with 140 rushing yards, but over half of that total (75 yards) came during their first three drives. From the 13:22 mark of the second quarter onward, the Seahawks run defense reverted to its natural state.

And so did Wagner, who finished with 10 tackles and his second sack this season.

His speed shows up repeatedly when we rewind the game tape. Take this second-quarter run by Gore that ended only a few yards after it started (two, to be exact).

The 49ers were backed up close to their own end zone, a situation that called for a power run straight ahead. Gore tried to plow through a hole opened by the center and left guard, with right guard Alex Boone pulling to seal it off.

But Wagner had already processed what’s about to happen when Boone began to pull and quarterback Colin Kaepernick turned to hand off. Notice his weight already shifting toward the developing hole.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Then almost instantly that hole is filled with a hard-charging body.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

That's one example among many of Wagner’s blur-like speed. But he also plays with plenty of patience. Those two things shouldn’t go together, right?

Both were on display late in the same game when he defended a third-quarter Carlos Hyde run. The Seahawks had just taken a three-point lead, and quarterback Russell Wilson needed the ball back with quality field position to burn off precious seconds and add some insurance points.

Wagner ignited that effort with the patience to wait for Hyde to commit, and then the aggression and speed to finish the job.

After coming in motion to the left side, 49ers fullback Bruce Miller pulled to the right. Defensive end Cliff Avril was his responsibility as the offensive line blocked to the left to open up a lane for the counter run.

Hyde was looking to run right and follow the imaginary bright blue arrow.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

At this point, the play became an example of disciplined assignment football by Wagner and by the Seahawks defense as a whole.

Miller does his job on Avril, but Hyde was forced to stop short, hesitating in the backfield after he saw a flash of blue. A large one, and it came in the form of defensive tackle Tony McDaniel (No. 99 above).

At this point, Wagner had put himself in position to seal off the far side, which was essentially Hyde’s bailout option. Instead of getting lost in an overly aggressive pursuit, he remained positionally sound until the running back committed.

See that canyon of space to Wagner’s right? That’s going to be trouble…

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

This is when we see Wagner’s reactionary speed. Not the straight-line, 40-yard dash speed, though, he has plenty of that. Stopping Hyde for no gain demanded vision, the aforementioned discipline, the rapid reflexes to read the developing cutback and the strength to finish while fighting off Boone.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

You can’t teach that blend of mental and physical talent. You can just sit back and be thankful the man who possesses it all is on your side.

Though Wagner is the anchor, the Seahawks run defense goes beyond him. Swarming with aggressive physicality while also staying disciplined—a difficult balance—is evident throughout the front seven. That’s kept Seahawks linemen and linebackers in the backfield often and opposing offenses to only 3.6 yards per carry overall this season.

Repeating as champions is easily within reach if offenses are forced to abandon the run. Because trying to beat this Seahawks defense by passing ends in many tears too.

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