Bobby Wagner leads the NFL with 152 tackles, the third time in what is sure to be a Hall of Fame career that the Seahawks linebacker has had more than 150 tackles in a season. And with four games left to play, he is almost sure to break his own franchise record for tackles in a season (167) and do so with ease.
But for all of his considerable talents and football smarts, Wagner would be the first to tell you he doesn't compile those stats on his own, and this year one of the biggest reasons Wagner is racking up tackles at a record pace is the play of veteran defensive tackle Al Woods, who in his 11th season may very well be playing the best football of his life.
And when asked if Woods ought to be a Pro-Bowler this year, Wagner didn't hesitate.
"One-hundred percent," Wagner said. "He's the reason why I'm playing the way I'm playing, the reason why I got tackles and stuff like that is he does an amazing job of keeping people off me. He has amazing energy. I think everybody saw last game, every time he was in the backfield—I don't know what the celebration he was doing, I don't know what it was, but that energy is contagious. What he does for this team and what he's brought to this team is unmatched, and a lot of people don't recognize it or see it all the time because he's not like the sacks person, but you know when he's in that backfield and I get to be free, it makes my job a lot easier. So I definitely feel that you guys should vote for Al for the Pro Bowl, for sure. He has my vote."
Woods is having one of his best years, statistically speaking—his 42 tackles are two short of his career-best total, he's half a sack from matching his career-high of 2.0, his four quarterback hits match his career high, and his three tackles for loss are two shy of a career high—but none of those numbers come close to showing his impact on the defense. By his own estimate, Woods is double-teamed on nearly three quarters of his snaps, meaning his job isn't necessarily to make a tackle, but rather to occupy those blockers so somebody like Wagner or Jordyn Brooks, who is third in the NFL in tackles, can make a stop. Woods is also a huge reason why the Seahawks are holding opponents to just 3.8 rushing yards per carry, the second lowest number in the league, and have held five straight opponents to 3.5 per carry or less.
Woods signed with Jacksonville as a free agent in 2020, but with a pregnant wife at home, Woods took last year off due to the COVID-19 pandemic to keep her and his unborn child safe. When the Jaguars released him this spring, he decided to return to Seattle, where he also briefly spent time early in his career, playing two games in 2011, and where he played in 2019, appearing in 14 games, and the decision has paid off for both him and the Seahawks, with Woods agreeing this is the best he has ever played.
"Yeah, 100 percent," he said. "It's probably the best I've ever felt at this point in the season, and that's credit to Coach Pete (Carroll), Coach (Clint) Hurtt, Coach (Ken) Norton, the training staff. They're helping me stay on top of any nicks and bruises I have, being really open about when they let me rest, when I need to practice, and it's all coming around full circle."
Along with the play of fellow defensive tackles Poona Ford and Bryan Mone, Woods has been a key piece to the Seahawks having one of the league's stingiest run defenses and the No. 5 scoring defense in the NFL.
"Those guys have played really well and were huge in there (against Houston)," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "You keep seeing Al (Woods) making plays, he's doing great and having the best year of his career, I would think. Mone is 340 something pounds, those two guys are monsters in there. Poona (Ford) has great leverage and is a great technique player. Really, I think it all stems from the play of those three guys, our ability to play the run. It's why you have seen Bobby (Wagner) and (Jordyn) Brooks make so many tackles this year. The line of scrimmage has been controlled well and those guys are both cashing in on it. It takes everybody, it takes the whole group to do it, but there's no doubt that it's centered around those guys starting at the line of scrimmage and controlling it. We would miss Bryan if he can't play because we like the rotations and it's hard to keep those big guys out there a long time. We let them work, give them a break, and then send them back out. It would affect the rotation as much anything."
Of course, playing at a Pro-Bowl level doesn't always equate to actually making the team, especially at certain positions. As a defensive tackle, an elite run-stopper like Woods is up against fellow interior linemen who specialize in rushing the passer, and sacks are always going to jump out at voters a lot more than the ability to occupy a double team. But even if Woods isn't a household name after 11 seasons in the NFL, he has a ton of respect from his teammates.
"You guys see what he's doing every week," safety Quandre Diggs said. "It's hard, because nose tackles never get love. He's not going to have sack numbers and things like that, but I think it should on the ballot where you have a true nose on a Pro-Bowl ballot. The guy's a true nose tackle, and he's killing it. Nobody, no center wants to block him one-on-one. I definitely think he should be a Pro Bowler."
And even if Woods might be a long shot to actually make his first Pro Bowl, he appreciates that his teammates and coaches are speaking so highly of him.
"It's cool," he said. "A lot of our stuff doesn't show up on the stat sheet. A lot of times, if I'm 40, 45 plays in a game, at least 28 to 30 of those are double teamed. So to get the respect of those guys, and for those guys to praise me that way, it means a lot… I'm playing with people I love to be around, and playing for this great organization and this great city, that's what's giving me the fuel to do what I do."
As Diggs notes, Woods spends plenty of time as a nose tackle, meaning he is lined up right over the center, but one part of his success this season is the Seahawks moving him around more often, from the nose spot to the three-technique (lined up just outside of a guard), to even playing the big defensive end spot where Red Bryant once thrived in Seattle's defensive early in Carroll's Seattle tenure.
"He's a very special talent because he's such a big guy," Carroll said. "He's got such great length. He's really smart, and he's physical as well. He could handle a move, and if we put him in some different spots and we moved him out on the tight end some and the tackle area, that he might be really unique at that. Really, the exact same Red Bryant realization. It was in the same thought. It kind of changed Red's career a little bit. You're seeing, because of some injuries and all that, that we're not playing him, Al, outside all of the time. We are moving him around and trying to get him on the move. He's just on fire, and he's so much fun to watch because he's having so much fun. He's having the time of his life playing. Really excited about it."
After splitting a sack with Rasheem Green in Sunday's win over the Texans, an elated Woods, still lying on his back, punched at the sky to celebrate a rare flashy play in a season full of understated dominance. With the sun shining on him and his parents in the building having made the drive from Louisiana, Woods was soaking in the moment with his teammates. And the more plays Woods makes this season, it's getting harder and harder for anyone to miss his impact on Seattle's defense.
"Big man love, they deserve all of that love," said defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. "Everybody loves a big man. Al has been very impactful as you know, he's made a lot of plays, he's very consistent, he's really been a man on the line. He's been solid, knocking people back, making big plays, and every time he does something—he runs down the field, he makes an impact off of the field, he's a leader in the locker room. There are so many different things that Al does that obviously you see on the field, but don't see in the locker room. He's certainly a big impact player, he's been very important to us and our success, we have done good some things in a lot of situational football, and Al is very much a part of that."
Seahawks players, along with Blitz, visited the Odessa Brown Children's Clinic to spread some holiday cheer. In addition to spending quality time together, the kids also received Seahawks teddy bears thanks to Build-a-Bear.