Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright have a lot on their Super Bowl plates

Posted Jan 30, 2014

To control the Broncos’ high-octane offense in Sunday’s Super Bowl, the Seahawks need to pressure Peyton Manning and cover his receivers. But linebacker Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright also have to be concerned with stopping Knowshon Moreno.

JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Bobby Wagner has been where the Seahawks’ No. 1-ranked defense will be trying to get in Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVIII matchup against the Denver Broncos’ No. 1-ranked offense.

And that is not only in Peyton Manning’s face, but into the chest of the Broncos’ record-setting quarterback. It came in the second week of the preseason, when Wagner arrived at Manning just as he was releasing a pass, using his shoulder to drive the 37-year-old QB into the turf at CenturyLink Field.

Asked Thursday during the Seahawks’ final media session before Sunday’s game at MetLife Stadium what he remembered about that hit, Wagner smiled and said, “That it was a good one.”

Wagner then added, “And that it can be done.”

NO. 1 VS. NO. 1

This is the second in a three-part series examining how the Seahawks’ No. 1-ranked defense will matchup against the Broncos’ No. 1-ranked offense in Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium on Sunday. Today, the linebackers.

Key stat

5: Sacks this season by middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who also had two interceptions to go with a team-leading 119 tackles.

Key matchup

Seahawks LB K.J. Wright vs. Broncos TE Julius Thomas: How can the Seahawks hope to cover a 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end with wide receiver skills? The same way they controlled the 49ers’ Vernon Davis (three times), Saints’ Jimmy Graham (twice) and Falcons’ Tony Gonzalez: With a heavy dose of a linebacker with cornerback length. And that would be the 6-4 Wright, who plays even taller because of his long arms and range. In three games against the Seahawks, the ridiculously athletic Davis caught seven passes for 57 yards and one touchdown, compared to 55 receptions for 888 yards and 14 touchdowns in his other 16 games. Graham led all NFL tight ends with 86 receptions for 1,215 yards and 16 TDs during the regular season, but in two games against the Seahawks – and one against Wright – he had four catches for 50 yards and one TD. Gonzalez has caught more passes than any tight end in NFL history, and had 83 receptions for 859 yards and eight TDs in his final season. But he had only three for 29 against the Seahawks. It wasn’t all Wright, but the Seahawks had the Wright stuff more often than not. Wright missed the final three regular-season games and playoff opener after having surgery on a broken foot. But he’s back, just in time to matchup against Thomas, who caught 65 passes and had 12 TD catches in the regular season and has 14 receptions in the Broncos’ two playoff games.

That fact has been in question this week, because Manning has not been sacked in the Broncos’ two postseason games, and was sacked just 18 times during the regular season despite throwing 659 passes. Coach Pete Carroll emphasized again on Thursday that the Seahawks must be able to at least move Manning if they hope to disrupt the timing of a passing game that featured the QB producing NFL single-season records for touchdown passes (55) and passing yards (5,477).

Typically, the middle linebacker wouldn’t factor into the plans to do that. But then Wagner is not your typical middle linebacker. Rather than leave the field on passing downs, like most middle linebackers, Wagner rarely, if ever, leaves the field because of his rare combination of skills that not only have allowed him to lead the defense in tackles each of the past two seasons, but also produce seven sacks and five interceptions.

“They’ve done a better job of protecting him, so it’s going to be much, much harder to hit him,” Wagner said.

That’s why the Seahawks’ bevy of pass-rushers need the extra time that tighter coverage can provide. And that’s where K.J. Wright also comes into play, as well as the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom secondary. The 6-foot-4 Wright is the other linebacker who remains on the field in the nickel defense, where his length and range are assets in coverage.

“It’s their speed that really sets them apart,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said when asked about Wagner and Wright. “You can feel how fast these guys can close. I think what really sets them apart is their ability to read the quarterback and really break on the ball. Those are the things that jump out to me most about them.”

With Wagner and Wright, it’s not so much one for all and all for one, but two operating as one.

Wagner on Wright, who arrived as a fourth-round draft choice in 2011: “K.J. has just grown. The biggest thing I think he’s gotten better at is his man coverage. I think he’s one of the best man-coverage linebackers in the league. So he’s grown in that aspect of his game.”

Wright on Wagner, who was a second-round pick in 2012: “Bobby has really improved from his rookie year to this year, and I believe how hard he plays starts with how hard he prepares. We get up early every morning, get in at 6:15 and get our mental game right.”

The Broncos feature a talented tight end in Julius Thomas, who had 12 touchdown catches among his 65 receptions during the regular season and is second on the team with 14 catches during the postseason. But the Seahawks have been holding productive tight ends well below their averages all season – from the San Francisco 49ers’ Vernon Davis (three times), to the New Orleans Saints’ Jimmy Graham (twice), to the Atlanta Falcons’ Tony Gonzalez, to the Carolina Panthers’ Greg Olsen.

Graham and Gonzalez ranked 1-2 in receptions among tight ends in the league this season, while Olsen was No. 6 and Davis was No. 7 in the NFC. But they had little or no impact on the games they played against the Seahawks, when their respective teams – three of them playoff teams – were a combined 1-6.

“We have to stay disciplined and stay true to who we are,” Wright said. “We can’t guess too much where he’s going to throw the ball and whenever he does throw it, we have to close on it and tackle really well. We can’t let them get yards after the catch.”

But the challenge for Wagner and Wright goes well beyond what Manning might be doing while throwing the ball, because the Broncos like to run Knowshon Moreno on draws from the shotgun formation in addition to mixing him in with Thomas and wide-outs Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker in the passing game. Moreno rushed for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns during the regular season and also added three more TDs while catching 60 passes.

So the respective, and collective, plates of Wagner and Wright are overflowing this week as they prepare for the smorgasbord that is the Broncos’ productive offense.

“They certainly do have full plates,” Quinn said. “’The Broncos are a committed running team for as explosive as they are offensively. When you look at the average number of rushes per game, they’re a really balanced and committed team in that way.”

While Manning was filling the Mile High air in Denver with passes, Moreno got the ball on 241 of the Broncos’ 461 running plays and averaged 4.3 yards per carry during the regular season. In the postseason, the Broncos have been even more balanced, running the ball 62 times and passing it 79 times.

“The backend (secondary) and linebackers, we’re all tied together,” Wright said. “But our challenge as the linebackers, first of all we have to stop Moreno. We can’t let him have big gains. Because if he starts running the ball, that’s when the play-action (passing game) kicks in and Peyton will start throwing behind us.

“So we have to stop the running game first, and the tight end as well. Those will be our biggest challenges, so Bobby and I are going to be busy.”

And if they can somehow get a hit on Manning in the process, or at least make him move off his comfort spot, all the better.