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“The Best He’s Been”
In his ninth season, Bobby Wagner is as important as ever to Seattle’s defense, and not just with the plays he makes on the field. 
By John Boyle Sep 25, 2020

This is the Seahawks Gameday Magazine feature story for Week 3 of the 2020 season, presented by Symetra. Visit our Game Center for more information related to Week 3 vs. the Dallas Cowboys.

Bobby Wagner didn't make the tackle on what was, through two games, the biggest play of the Seahawks' season. 

The All-Pro middle linebacker is, however, a big reason why that play went in Seattle's favor. 

For all the tackles Wagner has made over what will almost surely go down as a Hall of Fame career, for all the big third- and fourth-down stops, for all the interceptions and forced fumbles and sacks, there is more to Wagner's greatness than what you see after the ball is snapped. 

And that brings us back to what happened at the end of the Seahawks' Week 2 win over the New England Patriots that allowed Seattle to hold on and improve its record to 2-0 heading into Sunday's Week 3 matchup with the Dallas Cowboys.

Patriots quarterback Cam Newton was stopped on the 2-yard line on the final play of the game, securing a 35-30 win for the Seahawks in Week 2.

Prior to that deciding play, Patriots quarterback Cam Newton had twice kept the ball from the 1-yard line, and twice jogged into the end zone barely touched. So with the game hanging in the balance and the Patriots once again on the 1-yard line, there wasn't a lot of mystery about what the Patriots would do. But knowing Newton will keep it and stopping him are two different things. Newton is one of the best short-yardage runners—not quarterbacks, runners at any position—in the league, and the package New England used on those short-yardage plays features seven offensive linemen, two tight ends and a fullback. And with all of those blockers, Newton has the option to run either direction or up the middle, and he has the speed to bounce the run outside if things get clogged up. In other words, the Seahawks knew what was coming, but it was still going to be a big challenge to stop it. 

After a sideline conversation with Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., Wagner gathered his defense and relied on eight-plus seasons of experience, tons of film study and the instinct that helps make him one of the game's best defensive players, and he told the other 10 players what was going to happen. Yes, with the personnel New England had on the field, Newton could run any direction, but the Seahawks weren't going to play it straight-up, Wagner told the defensive huddle. In those brief seconds between plays, Wagner managed to get the entire line on the same page to do something they had not done up to that point, which was to have everyone "slant" to their right, or New England's left, because Wagner knew the ball was going that way.

The result was that L.J. Collier, who had been successfully blocked by the left tackle on the same play earlier in the game, shot into the backfield this time and undercut Newton, who wasn't able to bounce the run outside because safety Lano Hill got low and took out fullback Jakob Johnson to force Newton inside where he was upended by Collier to preserve a 35-30 win.

Safety Jamal Adams said Wagner's message to the team in the huddle was, "That ball's going right. That ball is going straight right." 

Said Collier, "Bobby came to us before that and said they were going to run the same play. We were going to slant on it and go with it, and I really just followed my captain, went with him, and you see we came up with a big-time play. Credit goes to coach (defensive coordinator Ken) Norton, Bobby, and the rest of the defense."

It takes a lot of conviction to make that call, because if Newton had changed things up and gone the other way, it would have been a very easy score, and just as importantly, it takes incredible leadership and communication skills to get 11 players to execute something they weren't planning on doing in that tight window between plays. 

"That play in particular, it really speaks to what you're talking about, because he had to go in the huddle and tell them something that they hadn't heard before," Carroll said when asked about Wagner's ability to see things pre-snap. "And when he did, he conveyed it, and he had to wait to make the call and he makes the call, and everybody executed just right. It was really a masterful demonstration of his control, and the impact that he has on those guys, because he was able to tell those guys something, he had to wait for a call, he made the call, and they executed it. Every single guy was on it, so somehow he got that word across, and you're talking 15 seconds or 20 seconds or whatever the heck it was in there—it couldn't have been more than 30—and to pull off a play that was executed perfectly like that at what that time was—it shows the respect they have for him, it shows his command of the game, and I think it's an illustration of what you're asking. He is a real pro, but it's more than just what he can do. It's really the relationship, and the respect he has from the other guys when he says something, they do it. That's so valuable, it's just such a valuable attribute. It's why he's been such a good player and he's done as he has."

Wagner said his ability to set that decisive play up is a combination of a lot of factors. Being a really smart person obviously helps, but Wagner's years of studying the game and the hours he puts in every week allow him to maximize his intellect. 

"I think is a little bit of everything," Wagner said. "It's intellect, it's memory—recognizing a play that they like to run during a game. And I think is just trust—trust in yourself trust from the coaches to that you're going to do the right thing and it's going to work out right, and L.J. and Lano trusted me, and they made an amazing play."

Hours of film study allows Wagner to recognize plays and put Seattle's defense in position to succeed.

Of course to only discuss Wagner's intellect and leadership leaves out the more obvious physical skills that have made him a five-time first-team All-Pro—the speed, the strength, the massive shoulders and traps that swallowed his neck years and years ago, the tackling ability, the lateral movement. And when you add it all up, those physical skills along with the instincts and intelligence, you have not just a great player, but one who is almost universally respected around the league.

"Bobby Wagner, I've always had such high respect and always admired his play," said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy, who saw Wagner numerous times over the years while he was the head coach of the Packers. "He hasn't missed a beat. He's probably one of our favorite players on another team on the defensive side of the ball. He goes sideline to sideline, he runs the defense, he's very instinctive. His instincts and awareness of what you're doing conceptually on offense, he's always done a great job there. He's an impact player."

A week earlier while getting his Patriots ready to face Seattle, Bill Belichick raved about what Wagner brings to the game.

"He's a great football player," Belichick said. "Super productive, got a great nose for the ball, very instinctive, runs well, anticipates plays well. There's just no price, you can put on that, just knowing what's going to happen or anticipate what's going to happen and then being able to get there to make the play when? right in the middle. You're a bull's eye for somebody on every play. There's no plays where you're not blocking 54. You're accounting for him on everything, and still he continues to have tremendous production in the running game, the passing game, he's a good blitzer, always good on outside plays, he's got good instincts on the inside runs, he's quick, he can escape blockers, he can also take them on. He's a good tackler, really understands the coverages that they play. He almost plays like a safety around a line of scrimmage in some of the things that they do where he has to carry the over route and things like that. It's a very difficult position to play in that defense, and he's exceptional."

And just because Wagner has accomplished so much already, including setting the franchise record for career tackles, earning first-team All-Pro honors a franchise best five-times, leading the NFL in tackles twice, including last year, and most importantly, helping anchor an all-time great defense that won a Super bowl, none of that means he plans on slowing down anytime soon.

At 30 and with Hall of Fame credentials, Wagner is still challenging himself to get better, and this offseason one of the big goals to improve in pass coverage. Last year, the Seahawks asked more of Wagner in pass coverage than ever, and while he by no means played poorly, he didn't feel like he played up to his standard.

"I think I've obviously been able to get my hands on a little bit more footballs," Wagner said of his pass defense. "I feel like every offseason you go into the offseason figuring out what part of your game you can improve, and I felt like that was something that I want to improve on, so I worked on it, and I feel like I'm recognizing routes a little bit better, and I want to continue to grow in that aspect."

So what happened after Wagner spent an offseason focusing on pass defense? He opened the 2020 season by breaking up multiple passes over the middle of the field and playing what Carroll called his best game of pass defense.

"I thought the first week was the best game he's ever played in pass defense," Carroll said. "He's had more tight coverage, more breakups, good hits and stuff, because he's seeing routes and concepts well, using the coverage well. It seems like this is the best he's been, which is understandable because you keep getting better as you go. The numbers pass defense-wise aren't showing that because we've seen a lot of throws. I'm really able to count on him to totally understand what he's doing and take advantage of stuff and make breaks, get balls knocked on the ground and all more so than ever. I'm really fired up about the next step he's taking."

Check out photos of Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner from throughout his ten seasons in Seattle.

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