K.J. Wright returned to the Seahawks lineup for their Week 16 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. But in a lot of ways, Wright felt like he was really back in last week's regular-season finale against the Arizona Cardinals.
Wright did make an impact play in that win over the Chiefs, breaking up a pass on Kansas City's first offensive possession, which ended in a three-and-out, but the following Sunday is when Wright really started feeling like his old self. Wright, who missed 11 of Seattle's first 14 games because of a knee injury, including five straight before the Week 16 return, recorded seven tackles in Sunday's win over the Arizona Cardinals, including a play that was vintage Wright when he sniffed out a screen pass to David Johnson and tackled the Cardinals back for a 5-yard loss.
"It felt good man, it felt good to make a play," Wright said. He then wryly added, "It took me 17 weeks. It's good. It does feel good to go out there and run around pain free, to tackle in the open field, to get over five tackles."
Wright missed the first six games of this season, his eighth in the NFL, following arthroscopic surgery on his knee in August. He returned midseason and played in three games, but then had to be shut down again because of that same knee. When he returned this time around, Wright insisted he felt a lot better than earlier this season, and his play the last two weeks, and in Week 17 in particular, backs up that assertion. Now after two games to knock off any rust, he feels like he's ready to do even more when the Seahawks play the Dallas Cowboys Saturday in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
"I needed that," Wright said. "I needed to get those reps in, I needed to get my feet wet, I needed to tackle again. It was good. I told my guys when I was hurt, just get me to the playoffs, and they got the job done."
Or as he succinctly put it after Sunday's game: "K.J. back. K.J. back."
Wright's teammates and coaches noticed the difference it made having him not just back, but back to looking like his old self.
"It was amazing," Bobby Wagner said. "Especially the screen where he made that tackle in the open field. That's when I was like, 'OK, he feels good.' That's all you want to see, see him feel good, see him getting out there moving. It's good to have him back. That's another person to communicate with, it's a brother that you've been playing with, and I'm excited for him. As he gets the reps and as he keeps going, he's going to make a lot more plays. It's going to be fun to watch."
Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., who was Wright's position coach from 2011 to 2014, said, "We haven't really seen the best of him yet. He's still getting better coming back to himself, but that was just a glimpse of what he brings to the defense."
"(Wright's presence) makes us stronger, it makes us better," Norton added. "Our cohesiveness and our communication is a lot better when K.J. is there. There's no question he raises the level of the defense, both physically and mentally."
Wright's return means the Seahawks go into the playoffs once again featuring what is arguably the best linebacker tandem in the league, with Wagner again turning in a dominant season that saw him record 138 tackles while missing only one tackle, according to Pro Football Focus.
When Wagner was asked Tuesday about that stat and if he has ever been a bad tackler, his response was, "Maybe when I was an infant and I was barely walking, kind of hard to bring people down. My legs weren't fully developed yet."
Wagner's sure tackling and playmaking ability has been a big part of Seattle's success all season, and two weeks ago the Seahawks were able to add another Pro Bowl linebacker to their lineup just in time for a playoff push. Since the 2014 season, Wagner (656) and Wright (479) have combined to make 1,135 tackles, the most by a linebacker tandem in the NFL over that time.
But when the Seahawks play the Cowboys on Saturday, Wright and Wagner won't be the only formidable linebacker tandem on the field at AT&T Stadium. Rookie Leighton Vander Esch has 140 tackles, two interceptions and seven passes defensed despite not being a starter when the season began, while Jaylon Smith, a 2016 draft pick who missed his entire rookie season because of an injury sustained in college, has added 121 tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles in his first year as a full-time starter.
"I love watching them play," Wagner said of Dallas' young linebacker tandem. "They bring so much juice. They fly around… I love their linebackers.
"You go to one side of the field and one guy is flying over and making a tackle for loss, and then you try the other side, and the other guy is making a tackle for loss, and you can just tell that they genuinely love to play together with one another."
While a young linebacker duo will try to make things difficult on Seattle's offense, the Seahawks are counting on their veteran tandem, one that hasn't had a chance to play together very often this season, to make a difference on Saturday night.
"It is an uplift," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said when Wright was ready to return two weeks ago. "It's not just the play that you're going to get, it's the mentality that he brings and the confidence that he exudes. Of course he's a fantastic player, but it's that other stuff, it's almost the intangibles that he adds that gives other people confidence. K.J. is such a good player and such a great communicator, he helps other guys play well. He and Bobby, it's so fun to watch them play and get back together and make their communications and identify stuff as they have for so many years. They really know how to work in tandem. There's an effect that goes beyond just the tackles that he's going to make."