Seahawks linebackers coach Michael Barrow has an acronym that describes what he's looking for from his players.
"I use the term, let's EAT," Barrow said. "The E is for great effort, the A is for being aggressive and attacking downhill, and the T is for being mentally and physically tough."
And when Barrow studies tape of the position group he took over this offseason, he sees Bobby Wagner, Brice Irvin and K.J. Wright EATing on a regular basis.
"When I measure those three things, man, I'm very happy with the way they're playing," said Barrow, who joined Pete Carroll's coaching staff after Ken Norton Jr. took the defensive coordinator job in Oakland. "I think they're playing extremely well. As a coach there are always things we can fix, but when it comes to the things that I'm demanding, that we're demanding as a staff, they're giving it all they've got."
Wagner, Wright and Irvin have all been important players for the league's best defense over the past few seasons, but with so much attention focused on the star-studded "Legion of Boom" secondary, the rest of Seattle's defense sometimes gets overlooked. That began to change last year when Wagner was named first-team All-Pro and selected to his first Pro Bowl, but Seattle's linebackers still feel like they are overrated as a group, especially considering how much the entire position group contributes when you factor in special teams play—backup linebackers Brock Coyle, Kevin Pierre-Louis and Mike Morgan are all core special teams players.
"We feel like if we play good, then the team plays good," Irvin said. "We feel like we play a big part in how the team does, but we also feel like we're underrated. As a whole, we feel like we're underrated and we try to go out there each and every week and prove we're one of the best linebacking corps in the league."
While the Seahawks linebackers, other than Wagner, don't have the accolades to back Irvin's statement, at least some outside observers agree that the Seahawks linebackers are among the league's best. ProFootballFocus.com, a football analytics website that has become increasingly mainstream in recent years, currently ranks K.J. Wright as the third-best 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL, and has him as one of only six outside linebackers yet to miss a tackle this season. That same site has Irvin tied for sixth best among 4-3 outside 'backers. Both rank favorably in both run defense and pass coverage, a sign of good overall play. Of linebackers who have played at least 60 percent of their team's snaps, Wright and Irvin, who has one missed tackle, rank first and second in tackle efficiency.
"Outstanding," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said of his team's linebackers. "These guys have played together for a while now. So they understand our defense, they understand where each other need to be, and ultimately it just comes down to communication, formation recognition, and ultimate execution."
For Irvin, linebacker is a relatively new position having gone from defensive end to strongside linebacker prior to the 2013 season. Irvin plays that position when the Seahawks are in their base defense, then when they go to their nickel defense with only Wagner and Wright at linebacker, Irvin goes back to being a pass rusher. A situational pass rusher as a rookie, Irvin rarely comes off the field now, and he routinely shows up making big plays from both positions.
Irvin initially struggled with the move—sacking quarterbacks will always be his first love—but more than ever he seems to be embracing his dual role.
"I'm both, man," Irvin said. "The linebacker part has really slowed down for me, I recognize stuff a lot quicker—pass concepts, formations and stuff. That part of the game has really slowed down for me. Then on third down I turn into a D-end, and that's when my pass-rush instincts kick in. I think I'm a versatile player."
And speaking of versatile players, it was Wright's versatility that helped make Irvin's position switch possible. Wright was Seattle's starting strongside linebacker in 2011 and 2012, at least when he wasn't filling in at middle linebacker, but because Wright can play every linebacker position, it gave the Seahawks the flexibility to get a playmaker like Irvin on the field.
That versatility could be called upon again Sunday if Wagner is unable to play because of a strained pectoral muscle. If Wagner, who is listed as questionable, can't play, Wright is expected to start at middle linebacker with Pierre-Louis playing at the weakside spot.
"He's very smart," Irvin said. "You've got to be very smart to play all three positions. K.J. is one of the most intelligent players I've been around. He dissects plays before they happen. He has a great IQ, so I try to pick his brain and learn as much as I can. He sees a lot and he's a great player, it's fun to play with him."
Adds Wagner, "He's just really smart. I think he's one of the smartest guys on our defense. He's so valuable because he knows practically every position. He's a huge asset to this defense."
And it's not just Wright's versatility that makes him valuable. If last season was Wagner's year to start earning honors for his strong play, this could be the year Wright, who his teammates believe already plays at a Pro-Bowl level, will actually be recognized for playing at that level.
"He's playing amazing," Wagner said. "He's out there flying around, making plays, reading stuff. He's the screen master. He's playing great right now."
Wright, who is second on the team to Wagner with 33 tackles, seems to have a special knack for sniffing out a play and making a big play in the backfield, hence Wagner calling him "the screen master." That ability to know what's coming before it happens has helped Wright earn another new nickname.
"We call him Spider Man," Barrow said. "I'll say to him, 'you're spider senses are tingling.' It's a credit to him and not just him but all the guys and their preparation. He's mentally prepared, he sees stuff on film and he's like a sponge."
Playing well is nothing new for Seattle's linebackers—Barrow went out of his way to praise Norton for the work ethic of the group he inherited—but if Wright, Wagner and Irvin all keep playing at a high level, this could be the season that more accolades start piling up for a group that has been playing in the shadow if Seattle's talented secondary.
"I just want them to eat," Barrow said. "I just want them to line up and play fast. When you play fast and don't think—the way to defeat a great athlete is to make him overthink, and if you're out there overthinking you're not reacting and taking advantage of your God-given ability, and that's the last thing I want these guys to do is be out there overthinking. I'm happy. As a coach you always get what you emphasize, and what we're emphasizing we're seeing on film."