If you like linebackers you'll love this matchup

The Panthers’ duo of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis might be getting most of the attention heading into Saturday night’s divisional playoff game, but don’t overlook the linebacker trio of Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and Bruce Irvin on the Seahawks’ No. 1-ranked defense.

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There's Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly, the inside linebackers on the All-Pro team that was announced last week. There's also the weak-side duo of K.J. Wright and Thomas Davis, who also produced 100-plus tackles during the regular season. And then there are the diverse talents of strong-side 'backers Bruce Irvin and A.J. Klein.

"Gosh, I tell you what, you're going to see some really good ones," Ron Rivera, a former NFL linebacker and now coach of the Carolina Panthers, said this week when asked about the array of linebacker talent that will be on display during his team's divisional playoff game against the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on Saturday night.

"And I think you're going to see two really good defenses, as well. It's a good group of guys. Both teams have very active linebackers. And as far as I'm concerned, both teams start with their inside linebackers. I think Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly will be two of the better ones on the field. And then you throw the combination of Bruce Irvin and K.J. Wright on the outside and you compare that with what we've got with Thomas Davis, and there are going to be some exciting guys on the football field."  

And, not surprisingly, the linebacker group that makes the most plays will help its team advance to the NFC Championship game on Jan. 18.

Between them, they produced 587 tackles, 16 sacks and three interceptions during the regular season to propel their teams into the postseason – Wagner, Wright and Irvin for the Seahawks; Kuechly, Davis and Klein for the Panthers.

Ken Norton, Jr. also is a connoisseur of linebacker play. Yes, he's in his fifth season of coaching and developing the Seahawks' linebackers – a group that also includes Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith, special teams standout Mike Morgan and rookie free agent Brock Coyle. But like Rivera, Norton also played the position in the league. And he did it as the leading linebacker in some productive units that led his teams to Super Bowl championships – Vinson Smith and Robert Jones with the Dallas Cowboys in 1992; Darrin Smith and Dixon Edwards with the Cowboys in 1993; and Gary Plummer and Lee Woodall with the San Francisco 49ers in 1994.

So Norton knows of what he speaks when it comes to the blend of talent and skills possessed by the Seahawks' starting unit.

"I don't think there's any question that the way they worked and the way they work together and how they are, they kind of fit to one another and fit together," he said.

And that's why each was drafted, because they fit the mold of what the Seahawks are looking for in their linebackers – unique players with unique qualities.

"Bobby is the guy in the middle – big, strong, tough guy," Norton said. "K.J. is the versatile guy, he can do everything – he covers, he tackles, he does it all. And then Bruce, he's just the world's greatest athlete."

With that said, here's a closer look at the Seahawks' starting linebackers:

Bobby Wagner

Bobby Wagner

Position: middle linebacker
Height, weight: 6 foot, 241
Age: 24 (born June 27, 1990)
College: Utah State
How acquired: Second-round draft choice in 2012

By the numbers
Season Tackles Sacks Int.
2012 140 2 3
2013 119 5 2
2014 104 2 0
Totals 363 9 5
Did you know: Wagner's 140 tackles in 2012 where a franchise rookie record; and his 104 this season game in only 11 games

The Seahawks had David Hawthorne at middle linebacker, and all he had done was lead the lead the team in tackles for three consecutive seasons (2009-11). But coach Pete Carroll and then-defensive coordinator Gus Bradley had a need for more speed, and they found it in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft by selecting Wagner.

He seized the role – the complete role – faster than the coaches were expecting. At first, Wagner wasn't making the defensive calls in the huddle because they did not want to overload him. A week or so later, Wagner had added that to his plate. At first, Wagner was not going to play in the nickel, so that he could concentrate on his duties in the base defense. A week or so later, Wagner was one of those players who never comes off the field.

"With Bobby, any time you want him to so something, tell him he can't do it," Norton said. "And he'll prove you wrong."

And Wagner continues to do that.

"With Bobby, it's the attention he demands on the field and just his confidence," Norton said. "You see the way he tackles and gets us lined up, really confident. And when he gets to that point of confidence, anything is possible."

Like being voted All-Pro and to the Pro Bowl this season despite missing five games at midseason with a torn ligament in his foot. Wagner's return coincided with the six-game winning streak to end the regular season, when the Seahawks allowed an average of 6.5 points per game and he averaged nine tackles – and also was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for December.

In 46 career games, including playoffs, Wagner has had at least eight tackles 37 times – with 18 double-digit efforts.

After helping lead the Seahawks to the franchise's first Super Bowl title in February, Wagner dedicated himself to being an even better player. He spent more time in the film room during the offseason and made improving his tackling a priority this season.

"Bobby is making all kinds of things happen," Carroll said. "He's playing with speed. He's playing physically and he's making hits. He's been really on the spot with his fits."   

K.J. Wright

K.J. Wright

Position: weak-side linebacker
Height, weight: 6-4, 246
Age: 25 (born July 23, 1989)
College: Mississippi State
How acquired: Fourth-round draft choice in 2011

By the numbers
Season Tackles Sacks Int.
2011 61 2 0
2012 96 1 1
2013 80 1.5 0
2014 107 2 0
Totals 344 6.5 1
Did you know: Wright started the first game of his NFL career, at middle linebacker; and has started at all three linebacker spots.

When Norton says that the 6-foot-4 Wright "does it all," that goes beyond the ability to use his long arms in pass coverage and his savvy to help him sniff out plays against the run. Since being selected in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Wright has started at each of the three linebacker spot – including middle linebacker in NFL debut because Hawthorne was out with an injury.

"K.J. was starting when he came off the plane after we drafted him," Norton said with a smile.

And Wright showed so much promise that Aaron Curry, the fourth pick overall in the 2009 NFL Draft, was traded to the Oakland Raiders to open the spot at strong-side linebacker for the rookie. When Irvin was moved to the strong side last season, Wright took over on the weak side, where he has really blossomed. This season, Wright was the leading tackler on the NFL's best defense.

"The thing with K.J. is how smart he is. He has an extremely high football IQ," Norton said.

And Wright has learned to use that IQ to outsmart opposing offenses, which continue to have a difficult time deciphering whether he's coming or going. Is he stepping up to plug a gap or blitz; or he is dropping into coverage to remove the tight end as an option?

"K.J. is such a valuable guy with all the stuff he does, not just where he plays more spots," defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said, eluding to Wright stepping back into the middle to start three games while Wagner was out this season.

"It's his speed, it's his length, it's his playmaking. He is quietly one of the most-respected guys on this team just by the way he comes about his work."

The Seahawks showed Wright some respect last month when he was signed to a four-year contract extension.

"It's good to see that the good guys finish first sometimes," Norton said. "And K.J. has been fantastic for us. He showed his versatility early on. So anytime Bobby gets hurt, K.J. goes to the middle. And the same thing if he has to go to the outside if Bruce gets hurt. K.J. is the guy who has been the key to our depth and whatever position he's played, he's been the top player at that position."  

Bruce Irvin

Bruce Irvin

Position: strong-side linebacker/rush-end
Height, weight: 6-3, 248
Age: 27 (born Nov. 1, 1987)
College: West Virginia
How acquired: First-round draft choice in 2012

By the numbers
Season Tackles Sacks Int.
2012 17 8 0
2013 40 2 1
2014 37 6.5 2
Totals 94 16.5 3
Did you know: Irvin led all NFL rookies in sacks in 2012; and he returned both his interceptions this season for touchdowns.

When Norton offered his line about Irvin being "the greatest athlete in the world," he wasn't even talking about Irvin's ability to not only walk on his hands but do pushups while doing it – which Irvin flaunts with regularity during practice.

As for the other attributes that prompted Norton's praise, his position coach and former Pro Bowl linebacker said, "He rushes. He covers. He buzzes to the flat. This kid is just amazing."

Many were amazed when the Seahawks selected him with the 15th pick overall in the 2012 NFL Draft. But for the wrong reason. Irvin was viewed a one-trick-pony of a player who could only rush the passer, and one with a checkered past at that.

Irvin spent his rookie season as the backup to since-departed Leo end Chris Clemons in the base defense and the rush-end opposite Clemons in the nickel. He led all NFL rookies with eight sacks. Last season, he added strong-side linebacker to his resume. This season, he has excelled in both roles – with 6.5 sacks and touchdown returns on both his interceptions.

"We drafted Bruce with the thought that he would play every down," Carroll said. "He could play the Leo spot from the day he got here, that's what we thought. We wanted to find out what we would find in him as a linebacker, as well, which we did in the second year.

"But as we grew to appreciate his athletic ability and his natural talent and all that, we just tried him. It was an experiment and it worked out well. And now he's got tremendous flexibility. He can do tons of stuff for us. He's all over the field and he really understands the role that he's asked to do. So it's worked out great." 

As different as Wagner, Wright and Irvin are as individuals and in skillsets, it's the tie that binds them which Norton really likes.

"The one thing they have in common is their ridiculous work ethic," Norton said. "They really care about each other, about the team, about their own self-improvement. They want to make their time here impactful."

Getting a win over the Panthers, and getting the upper hand on Kuechly and Davis and Klein, would be another huge step in that direction.

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